One of the great joys of being a film critic occurs on those rare occasions when you’re able to approach a movie with little prior information and no expectations, only to walk out of the theater two hours later pleasantly stunned and surprised. Such was the case with Jake Scott’s exceptional “American Woman,” a film that by its nature is destined to be overlooked by the movie-going public.
With a knowing script by Brad Ingelsby, the movie provides a telling and sincere slice of working-class life replete with its grand sorrows, bits of happiness, days of joy and minor setbacks, all seen through the story of one woman who’s forced to find an inner strength she never knew she possessed.
Debra (Sienna Miller) is a woman in her early 30s who never grew up. Despite having her 17-year-old daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) living with her as well as her grandson Tyler, she still acts like a teenager herself, drinking, smoking, running around with a married man and not having a care for tomorrow.
This all changes one night when Bridget goes out and doesn’t return, an event that radically changes her life as she finds herself having to raise her grandson on her own.
This is the start of an 11-year odyssey that sees Debra stumble, fall and get up again, repeating this process with the best of intentions regarding her grandson. She works hard, but in dead-end jobs that lead her nowhere; she takes up with Ray (Pat Healy), who dutifully pays her bills but has no problem smacking her around when she “steps out of line”; she fights and makes up repeatedly with her sister and brother-in-law (Christina Hendricks and Will Sasso) who live across the street; and she takes a chance on Chris (Aaron Paul), who may be the man she’s been waiting for.
This material is quite delicate as it could easily devolve into melodrama of a “Lifetime” movie or sensationalize many of its plot points, particularly those involving the missing Bridget. The story moves at a natural pace, employing a sense of logic that rings true regarding the reality created here. Ingelsby has a good ear as his dialogue has an authentic sound to it, down-to-earth language that’s never calculated but raw and organic. There’s a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic at play here that provides a solid, realistic foundation.
However, in the end, it’s the cast that sells the movie. Each and every performer is sincere in each moment they inhabit, creating a world of blue-collar hard knocks and troubles we can relate to. The fights that take place, the reconciliations that occur and the grief that hangs over the story are all rendered with such ferocity that their work trumps any concerns regarding the authenticity of the script.
Everyone is good, but Miller is a dynamo here, giving a wide-ranging performance in providing a realistic transformation where this troubled but ultimately strong woman is concerned. You believe everything Debra says and all that she is going through and end up hoping she can finally pull it all together thanks to Miller’s passionate work.
In the end, “American Woman” is an ode to the perseverance of those who are able to find the strength to deal with the disappointments and setbacks of everyday life and come to embrace that which we so often take for granted. In doing so, like Debra, they are able to find an inner strength while holding on to their core values. As exemplified by the film, this sort of quiet, overlooked heroism is more common than one would expect.
‘American Woman’ (**** out of four)
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Maggie Castle and Kelly Rose Golden.
Directed by Jake Scott; produced by Brad Feinstein, Michael Pruss, Ridley Scott; screenplay by Brad Ingelsby.
A Roadside Attractions release. 112 minutes. Rated R (language, sexual content and drug use). At the Art Theater.
Also new in theaters
Revisionist “Ophelia” a fun Shakespearean lark (***1 / 2 out of four). I’m sure that Shakespeare purists will be up in arms over Claire McCarthy’s film, a revisionist look at “Hamlet” though the eyes of the titular character.
Based on the novel by Lisa Klein, the film provides a new perspective on history’s most famous tragedy, giving us a great deal more information about the Danish prince’s lost love and suggesting that there was far more to the character than the Bard let on.
The film begins with a bit of misdirection as we see a recreation of the famous painting by John Everett Millais, our heroine floating atop a flower-strewn river. Yet in voiceover, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) tells us, “I am a willful girl and have always spoke my mind.”
We see how true that is as she stands up to herself in the Danish court that is in turmoil, drawing the attention of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who takes her under her wing and teaches her to be a lady. This only draws Gertrude’s son Hamlet (George MacKay) more strongly to Ophelia, as he takes her into his confidence while trying to deal with the grief over his father’s death and his uncle Claudius’ (Clive Owen) rise to the throne.
One of the interesting things in the film is that it takes familiar scenes from the original play and restages them in such a way that “new” information is provided that expands the story. The famous “To be or not to be” sequence now becomes a moment of court intrigue as the two young lovers converse in whispers and signs, knowing full well they’re being observed by Claudius. Equally intriguing is the way in which Ophelia’s background is filled in, giving us an independent woman who was far from simply being a victim of duplicitous men.
The entire third act is nearly completely new where the story is concerned, the famous court machinations playing out in the background as Ophelia’s story takes center stage. And while things that didn’t happen in the play pop up here and there, and an extra character or two is thrown into the mix, all that occurs is in keeping with Shakespeare’s approach. Plot points from some of his other works are logically employed here to great effect, the tone of the movie maintaining a consistency to the original work that’s admirable.
In the end, “Ophelia” proves to be a lark, a “What if ...” cinematic parlor game that is not only engaging but also provides a fresh perspective on “Hamlet” as well. This is all great fun as the movie provides us with a heroine in step with today, injecting a bit of life into a tale from yesterday.