Sienna Miller is one of the finest actors working today, but you rarely get a chance to really experience that because of the roles she’s saddled with. With strong supporting roles in such films as American Sniper, Foxcatcher, and The Lost City of Z, Miller is often the strongest factor in an otherwise average or disappointing movie. But every so often, in works like Layer Cake (which is probably the first film I saw her in), Aflie, or the flawed Factory Girl, she gets to truly shine as a performer.
So why isn’t she better known and getting better parts? There may be things stacked against her. She’s something of a chameleon, in that she absolutely vanishes into each character she portrays, to such a degree that you’ve probably seen her in things and didn’t even realize it. Second, she’s also very attractive, which sadly often translates into her not being taken seriously as an actor. It also doesn’t help that she’s frequently mistaken for Naomi Watts (they do look a lot alike sometimes). But you could build a fairly sizable Sienna Miller film festival and see some terrific movies—or at least solid performances from Miller—in the process.
All of that being said, her latest work, American Woman, might feature her finest performance to date, and it’s a lead role to boot, which means you’ll know by the end of the film if you’re an admirer of Miller’s or not. Set in rural Pennsylvania, the film concerns Debra Callahan (Miller) as something of a hot mess mother of teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Perreira of Lords of Chaos and Baby Driver), who herself has a baby named Jesse, making Deb a fairly young grandmother and not the greatest role model for either generation of offspring. Deb’s more well adjusted sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) lives across the street with teddy bear of a husband Terry (Will Sasso), and they help out when they can; it’s the kind of family dynamic where both houses make up one bigger house, where no one knocks before they come in. It’s both cozy and smothering on both sides of the equation, especially when you throw in the sisters’ frequently visiting, nosy mother Peggy (Amy Madigan).
Deb has issues with her temper, her love life (she’s dating a married man), keeping a job and raising her daughter (she’s shockingly not a fan of taking care of the grandson), and you should know before going into American Woman that there’s a good chance it may take some time to see why we should care about Deb’s life in any way. But then, one night after Bridget leaves the home of her on-again/off-again boyfriend (and deadbeat father to Jesse) heading home, she goes missing, and as the hours go by and she doesn’t show up anywhere, the family goes into a mild state of controlled panic searching for her. The days and weeks go by, and the mystery of Bridget’s disappearance deepens as Deb’s emotions sink further into depression, and the full power of Miller’s strengths as an actor begin to reveal themselves.
As far as I know, Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay is not based on one particular true story, but every second of the film feels authentic to the place and time, and Miller’s version of small town scandal queen seems pretty dead on. American Woman is not a story about a woman’s search for her missing daughter; it’s about what Deb does to dig herself out of a sinkhole of sadness and change certain things about her life to better take care of her grandson and get along with those around her. The unknown fate of her daughter looms large over nearly every second of this story, but this is truly about a strong-willed woman who manages to harness her own power and use it for the good of the people she loves.
There have been an impressive number of films lately that have featured impressive women at the center at a time in their lives when things are shifting, either because of age or some other, unforeseen circumstance (Gloria Bell being an excellent recent example). Director Jake Scott (son of Ridley and a veteran music video director, as well as filmmaker of such works as Plunkett & Macleane) has constructed a world and town that can be as oppressive as it needs to be or open and inviting to someone who is willing to get out and exist with people.
We see Deb in a couple of relationships in the years following Bridget’s disappearance—one with a pig of a man named Ray (the great Pat Healy), who she only allows in her life because he pays the bills; and another with the gentler, but still manly, Chris (Aaron Paul), who seems like the guy she’s been working toward this entire time. But few things in Deb’s life are that easy, and even that relationship has its serious issues. Although it’s not the centerpiece of the film, the overarching mystery is eventually solved, but in the end, it’s not what happened to Bridget that is as important as the closure it gives Deb. And by the end of American Woman, we realize that we’re looking at a woman who has both transformed completely and remained remarkably true to herself, even if that still gets her into mild forms of trouble every so often. Using tragedy as a catalyst for change isn’t a new idea in cinema, but when it gives us the chance to watch Sienna Miller really inhabit a character the way she does here and move her life forward in such a devastatingly perfect manner, I’ll take it.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
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