Wednesday 30 October 2019

Sienna calling: "American Woman"

American Woman is two comebacks for the price of one. The headline story is that this is a proper star vehicle for Sienna Miller, the once-reviled It girl who repositioned herself by way of committed stage work and doing far more in stock wife/girlfriend roles in major studio releases (Foxcatcher, American Sniper) than many better placed actresses would have. Here, pursuing the indie route, she makes an altogether assured transformation into and out of a hot mess: Deb, a blowsy Pennsylvanian supermarket cashier and single mother introduced taking her pleasures where'er she can - most notably, via an affair with a married man - with scant regard for the consequences. Some form of responsibility will be conferred upon her, however, when her teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes AWOL, leaving Deb holding her own grandson. Initially, American Woman seems to be heading in the direction of a missing-persons thriller, possibly with an element of the psychological, or possibly even time-travel: we wonder whether finding Bridget - which Deb sets out to do with more or less the same delicacy she applies to her lovelife, swiftly totalling her car while mascara streams down her face - will allow our heroine to save some younger version of herself. In fact, the resolution of the Bridget crisis is delayed as the film instead takes the backroads and winds in a very different direction. By far the most impressive aspect here is the insistence that life isn't straightahead - so why should our movies be?

That the parallel between mother and daughter occurs to us is largely down to one deft character beat, inserted in the very first scene, in which Bridget watches her mom head out for a date, then mimics her performative hairtossing. The other comeback here is that of Jake Scott, son of Ridley, returning to the director's chair nearly a decade after 2010's Welcome to the Rileys and two after 1999's Plunkett & Macleane, the much-reshot, much-recut highwayman dud that might well have necessitated a long spell in the movie wilderness. Throughout American Woman, Scott proves unusually alert to the tension Deb's behaviour causes in those around her, be that her married, upwardly mobile sister (Christina Hendricks), their exhausted mother (Amy Madigan), or the neighbours who take one look at this bottle-blonde homewrecker coming up their driveway and immediately dive for cover. The movie doesn't look like much - it's going for a washed-out ordinariness someone thinks suits these lives, with occasional digital smears that bestow the mark of corner-cutting content - but Scott is a far calmer filmmaker than he was twenty years ago, and wiser to the ways people impact upon one another. There are passages in American Woman that set me to thinking of Kelly Reichardt's recent portraits of blue-collar striving, which is not what I was expecting from the director who once set Robert Carlyle and Jonny Lee Miller to exchanging geezerish wisecracks in what looked like an over-extended Adam Ant promo.

If a question mark remains, it hovers over the script. Brad Ingelsby is one of the few American writers around capable of getting scripts centred on working-class communities into production; this one's subtler than 2013's Out of the Furnace, but its structure takes some figuring out, and its transitions needed finessing by a more experienced filmmaker than Scott. Sporadic leaps ahead are good for Miller, who gets to rethink and refresh her heroine, showing how Deb pulls herself together and kicks out the bad (abusive wretch Pat Healy) in favour of something better. It's not entirely helpful for the film at first, shutting down the promising mystery Scott has carefully set up; the midsection is so oddly directionless it could be a filmed record of an actors' workshop, the result of creatives setting up camp in some out-the-way location in order to make up scenes on the hoof. (Again, it's a little bit Reichardt, but there are also signs that Scott has been studying that New American Cinema that came along in the wake of John Cassavetes.) Those actors are on fine form, though, and the absence of firm narrative developments clears a space for everybody to dig into the theme of development - arrested, belated, haphazard or otherwise. American Woman is good on growth: the kind of growth Miller and Scott have in common with Deb, the kind of growth most lives are founded on, that quiet, subcutaneous growth the movies don't often deal in, in part because it is so quiet and subcutaneous, so very unspectacular. That alone makes American Woman worthy of cautious recommendation - it may just require you not to expect anything as declamatory or definitive as that title.

American Woman is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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