American Woman (4 stars)

American Woman

Sienna Miller is sensational in this eventful but admirably understated drama from Jake Scott

Watching the opening scenes of director Jake Scott's American Woman, it's easy to think of the main character, Deb Callahan, as a cliche. She's the archetypal brassy, emotionally volatile, working class white woman from rural America; a grandmother at 32, she's having an affair with a married man. Yet, while all those details are true, actress Sienna Miller inhabits the role so confidently that it soon becomes apparent Deb is also so much more. Miller makes naturalistic choices in her physical performance, and knows when to deploy a whisper instead of a shout.

Brad Ingelsby's script follows Deb through a series of heartbreaks and tragedies, none more life-altering than the sudden disappearance of her 17-year-old daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), early in the film. Left to raise her young grandson without any closure, the next 11 years of Deb's life gradually unspool.

Though the difficult events that follow aren't explored in enough depth, what binds everything together is the strong sense of family at the film's core; Deb's relationship with her older sister, Kath (Christina Hendricks), is brilliantly realised, both by Ingelsby, who evidently understands how sibling dynamics work, and in the actresses' portrayals. From early scenes, in which they march unannounced into one another's homes – located directly across the street – their familiarity and strength of bond is obvious. Elsewhere, Will Sasso puts in an endearing turn as Terry, Kath's dependable husband, who adds to the support system.

There's some clunky dialogue, a slightly sagging middle, and almost soap opera-worthy numbers of dramatic events, yet much of it is admirably understated. Scott smartly avoids melodramatic showdowns where it counts, while editor Joi McMillon (Moonlight) knows when to cut away from a scene, and her transitions between time jumps are smart and seamless. Connecting it all is Miller's gutsy performance; in her growth, Deb becomes a protagonist to really root for.

Selected release from Fri 11 Oct.

American Woman

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • US
  • 1h 51min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Jake Scott
  • Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul
  • UK release: 11 October 2019

Deb (Miller) is a working class white woman from rural America, and a grandmother at 32, whose 17-year-old daughter Bridget (Ferreira) disappears. Miller's gutsy performance makes Deb a protagonist to root for, even if the script's profusion of drama makes it almost soap opera-ish.