I was not looking forward to this movie. First, the title. As someone that hates the Guess Who song American Woman (and even the horrific cover by Lenny Kravitz), the idea of a movie with the same title, dealing with a mother that is searching for her missing daughter…ugh.
The studio sent me a link to watch it, and I put it off for so long that the link expired. Yet since it opened this weekend at my favorite theatre (Angelika Film Center), I thought spending a Father’s Day watching a mom searching for a missing daughter, might top off the evening.
It’s a script by Brad Ingelsby (Out of the Furnace with Christian Bale) and directed by Ridley Scott’s son Jake (whom I hadn’t thought about since he did the mildly amusing James Gandolfini/Kristen Stewart movie Welcome to the Rileys nine years ago).
Sienna Miller plays Debra, in a performance that better get her an Oscar nomination at the end of the year. Never before have I seen a character on screen that is so deplorable (I’m stealing that word back from Hillary), yet through her hardships and how she changes, we fully root for. So much so that in the second half of the movie, any time the littlest obstacle came her way, I started crying, fearing she’d go off the rails again.
Early in the film we watch this small-town hussy chain-smoking, and getting ready for a date with a married man. She has no qualms talking to her teen daughter (Sky Ferreira) about it. She had her daughter when she was a teen, and the pattern has continued. That means a grandchild is living with them, too.
At first I thought Miller was too pretty for this role. Reading the screenplay, you’d think more of an actress like Amy Ryan’s character/look from Gone Baby Gone. Now, Ryan’s co-star in that film, Amy Madigan, is outstanding as Debra’s mom. There are scenes in it reminiscent of the grieving mother Dianne Wiest played in Rabbit Hole (Nicole Kidman). And speaking of Dianne, this movie reminded me at times of one of my other favorite films of this year — Diane (Mary Kay Place). Sorry, I’m going off in so many directions here, but I just enjoyed this film so much, my head is spinning with so many things I want to say about it. I figured just rattling off every picture that’s popping in my head was the way to go. I’ll read this a few days later and realize it’s not.
Early on, you think the movie is going to be filled with lots of family drama, since she lives across the street from her disapproving sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks of Mad Men). Yet one of the many brilliant things this movie does, is that it creeps up on you with powerful scenes that are subtly written. They feel so much more authentic because of the subtlety. Katherine doesn’t smash glasses into the sink while lecturing her on dating a married man. Her husband (Will Sasso of MADtv), a big, stoic guy who will remind you of Gandolfini, might seem like a loser. Yet tears rolled down my face as I watched him continue to help out his sister-in-law. Early on, that’s rolling his eyes as he grabs the toolbox to fix her garbage disposal. Later, it’s to help her go from house to house in search of her daughter. He even ends up pushing an abusive guy into some bushes. By the time it gets to a point where he says a few kind words over a toast, I was a blubbering mess in my seat. It’s funny, because when a movie like Pulp Fiction comes out, film classes take the screenplay and dissect it and exclaim it’s brilliance (and rightly so). But film professors should take a script like this, and point out to students how to not over-write your material. Make these characters feel like the neighbors we have that live nextdoor to us, that we sometimes hear fighting with each other. Speaking of which, we see an abusive boyfriend, and even those scenes are done brilliantly. He’s not beating her within an inch of her life. He’s just angrier than he should be about her talking to a male co-worker, or a guy she went to high school with. By the time it comes to food being shoved in her face…I contend that scene is the best scene I’ve ever seen in a film, with an abusive boyfriend/husband character. And folks, I’m a 49-year-old that has seen almost every movie released the last 30 years.
In other movies, when a woman is reluctant to start dating again, you roll your eyes at the ridiculousness of a Prince Charming standing right there and the woman not seeing it. In this, we love that she’s reluctant to jump into a new relationship with Chris (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad). We’ve seen everything she’s been through, and perhaps the best thing for her at that time is just working, going to school, and raising her grandchild.
I’m a critic that can be tough on movies. I’m one of the few that didn’t care for Three Billboards, a movie I thought of watching this. Another disappointing movie came to mind — Changeling (Angeline Jolie). Since we go through over 10 years with these characters, I also thought of Boyhood (which I did like).
Somebody asked me the other day if I had a Top 10 list yet for this year. I told them there were only four movies on it so far. Now it’s up to five with American Woman.
I’ll even forgive it for an early scene they stole right out of The Way, Way Back (where a character sings the lyrics wrong to Mr. Mister’s song Kyrie).
4 stars out of 5.
It’s also playing at the Fashion Valley AMC, as well as the Angelika Film Center.