The general nature of a feature film often makes it difficult for an actor to show growth in a character. There might be moments of clarity along the way, but the confines of time create walls that are difficult to breach.
But it’s not impossible for the right actor and script. This is the case with “American Woman,” starring Sienna Miller, who faces extreme highs and lows through a broad spectrum of emotions to play. She plays Deb Callahan, an emotionally mangled mother and grandmother whose life wanders between bad choices and decisions. That changes when Deb’s teenage daughter mysteriously disappears and Deb must face the harsh realities of having to raise her young grandson while coping with her own pain, anger and fears.
It might sound like the disappearance would be the heart of the film, but it’s just a spark to the wildfire Miller gets to play. She does an Oscar-worthy job of taking the character from a neurotic mess to a mature soul without any steps feeling forced or false. This is all accomplished without having broad elements to play such as Deb suddenly becoming a sleuth to find her missing child. This is a real and relatable character, compelling to watch because she resonates with truth.
Miller’s work is elevated by a superb supporting cast, which includes Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan, Christina Hendricks and Will Sasso. Each gives Miller’s character a different sounding post, allowing her to play everything from a brokenhearted woman to a loyal sister.
Director Jake Scott, better known for directing music videos, shows a great ability to recognize that real life can be complicated and painfully simple. He never pushes the film into overly dramatic moments.
A lot of this comes from the script by Brad Ingelsby, who reveals a great awareness of how real life is made up of broad emotions that are never cut and dry but tend to mingle. Even in the darkest moments, there are touches of humor that reflect the natural way a lot of people deal with grief and loss. These moments are played out so naturally there are moments when “American Woman” almost has a documentary feel.
All this works because of Miller. She doesn’t just say the right words to generate emotional responses, but has a way of transforming herself to the point she actually seems to be a different person by the end of the movie. She gives a masterclass in the difference between being an actor saying lines and being an actor who lives the role.