NZIFF 51: American Woman, Directed by Jake Scott

What constitutes a pivotal moment in someone’s life? An event so monumental that it can turn everything a person has ever known on its head? For Deb Callahan, it’s the disappearance of her daughter Bridget. Sarah Kidd reviews American Woman.Life is fairly simple for Deb in small-town Pennsylvania; she lives in a modest if not a little run-down house with her teenage daughter and infant grandchild Jesse, the dwelling itself conveniently right across the road from her married with kids sister and Deb’s mom. The opening scenes alluding to not only a strong connection with but almost a reliance on her family’s infallible presence, especially that of her own daughter; unsurprising in many ways when considering that each bore a child at such a young age. Mother and daughter creating a symbiotic relationship more akin to siblings than that of parent and child. Early conversations between Bridget and her mother later replicated between Deb and her sister, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks.

Deb is a wild flower, blonde, attractive, she throws caution to the wind, despite her increasing and less than savoury reputation around town thanks to her ongoing affair with a married man. She detests her mother (played brilliantly by Amy Madigan,) Deb’s almost deplorable berating of her at times enough to make audience goers winch a little, but her connection to her sister Katherine remains tumultuously tight.

Then, in the blink of an eye, it all changes; Bridget – after asking her mother to babysit so that she can have dinner with Jesse’s estranged father – never comes home, her disappearance the catalyst for a series of events that play out with ever increasing ferocity before culminating in Deb stepping into the abyss, only to re-emerge as something else altogether.

Directed by Jake Scott and produced by none other than his father Ridley Scott along with Kevin J. Walsh (who produced the critically acclaimed 2016 movie Manchester by the Sea), American Woman is a beautifully measured character study of Deb Callahan as she picks through the pieces of her life and slowly, deliberately fashions them together into something better, something more enduring. Sienna Miller in the role of Deb is quite frankly award-winning, the fire that emanates from within never once dying out, only channelled in different ways as she moves through both the years and her own personal evolution.

With the plot being played out over a period of approximately twelve to thirteen years, the first initial timeline jump is signified with a simple blackout screen; from there it is handled rather elegantly with a scene merging seamlessly into the next each time the story shifts ahead chronologically. Relationships with both the domineering Ray played by a menacing Pat Healy and later the seemingly charming and down to earth Chris (Breaking Bads, Aaron Paul) resulting in subtle changes to both Debs demeanour and appearance as she continues to rearrange the pieces, her relationship with her family members however only ever solidifying their bonds throughout.

Some may argue that there is also somewhat of a subliminal statement woven into the fabric of the film, that motherhood, despite all it’s trials and tribulations will bring about its own rewards and at its very essence is what lies in the core of all those who bear children.

Films such as these are rare commodities, storylines that focus on a singular character not easy to pull off unless graced with the right performer; Miller proving throughout that she is unequivocally the actress for the job as she wears Deb’s life as naturally as she would her own.

~Sarah Kidd

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