' ' Cinema Romantico: American Woman

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

American Woman

“American Woman” is perhaps only called “American Woman” because the name of the American Woman in question – Deb (Sienna Miller) – isn’t sufficient to carry the title all on its own, or to convey the sweep of the movie itself, not like, say, Suzanne, which was the title of Katell Quillévéré’s 2013 French drama, a not altogether successful but still frequently compelling film encompassing years in a person’s life rather than a handful of weeks or months. “American Woman” spans years too, though in the company of a character who is less of a troubled free spirit and more reminiscent of Uma Thurman’s flawed if well-meaning “Hysterical Blindness” protagonist, with occasional notes of Amy Ryan’s “Gone Baby Gone” aggression, and not content simply to observe her stasis but how she eventually breaks it and moves on. That means the movie, despite a lived-in setting, with conspicuous rusted aluminum siding and grimy light switches, is less interested in how the place itself correlates to these circumstances than the ongoing dramas in which she becomes mired and tries to overcome.

Deb lives at home with her daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) who is, in turn, caring for her own infant son, a familial congestion furthered in how Deb’s sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and brother-in-law Terry (Will Sasso) live directly across the street, allowing for several comic confrontations, never more than Deb and Katherine arguing by phone as they glare at one another through their respective front windows. Deb is a livewire, evoked predictably in an affair with a married man but more effectively in Miller’s mere being, treating her sister’s kitchen countertop, say, like a pool table as she dangles her legs over it while slurping beer, and how the character then challenges Katherine’s own adulterous fantasies with Terry right out there in the living room. Not long after, when Bridget doesn’t return home after spending the night with her child’s immature father, Deb rushes by car to confront him, trailed by Terry, brought to life with a humorously but believably frantic air by Sasso, as if he’s a security detail struggling to keep up with his client.

The disappearance of Bridget fuels the movie to come, leading Deb down the dark rabbit hole of depression, culminating in an incredible scene where enraged, drunk and driving, she lets go of the wheel of her car and deliberately crashes, a scene with a more eerie air than horrifying one, as though by releasing the wheel she’s checking out of her own body, improbably bringing to life one of the greatest of all Bruce Springsteen kickers, the one to “Highway 29”, ending on a car crash that might be a dream or might not, as he whispers “I was running – yeah, I was running then I was flying.” And director Jake Scott makes this seem like a dream too, showing her walking away from the wreckage in long shot, nothing heard except the sound of her shoes scraping across the cement, her white costuming emitting the air of a heavenly robe, walking directly toward the camera and then out of its purview, the movie cutting to several years in the future, completely eliding the fallout of the wreck and, as such, rendering it more like a symbolic act, a rebirth. Indeed, from there the movie metamorphoses into the beginning of the rest of Deb’s life, which covers so much ground that frequently “American Woman” feels as if it doesn’t linger enough, particularly where Deb going to school and her eventual full-time job are concerned, the latter concluding in a scene that fails to denote its ostensible triumph because we never see what leads to it.

No, “American Woman” is more interested in the difficult day-to-day details of a poor woman raising a grandson alone, dating and living with an abusive man (Pat Healy, convincingly demonstrating a blown emotional fuse just in the way he seems to twitch at the kitchen table while reading the paper) in a relationship where the transactional necessity is painfully laid bare, Miller’s riotous, incredulous laugh when Deb is asked if she intends to marry this loser belying that painful truth before the chararacter verbally cops to it. If it speaks to Deb’s plight, it also speaks to Miller’s performance, one morphing from angrily obtuse to levelheaded, where in each scene she gradually cools off and paints in a little more mindfulness, so that her character’s arc rings true no matter what, like a late movie marriage that despite overly conspicuous plotting gains credence in both its swift union and eventual dissolution simply from Miller’s solid disposition. In fact, the scene where Deb calmly confronts her spouse rhymes with a later scene, one bringing the preeminent plot point of her missing daughter to a close. There is a cosmic meaningless in each one, which might have rendered cheap cynicism if Miller had not already made implicit Deb slowly infusing her life with meaning, dealing with the unbelievable by finding the wherewithal to believe in herself.

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