The performances anchoring “American Woman” are some of the finest screen acting we’ll see this year.
Sienna Miller and Christina Hendricks play sisters with all the lived-in love and knowing-which-buttons-to-punch of the real thing. Amy Madigan slips into the role of their mother as if she’d had 30 years of practice.
And Aaron Paul, Will Sasso and Pat Healy make vivid impressions as the men in the background, supporting or controlling, defending or abusing these strong, flawed blue collar women we watch weather a dozen years of tragedy, bad choices and tough compromises.
Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (“Out of the Furnace,””Run All Night”) cooks up a blood, bruises, cigarettes and tears portrait of working class lives gutted but going on after the tragedy that seeps out of the first act. And director Jake Scott (“Welcome to the Rileys”) lets his leading ladies make their statement without fuss, letting the gloom of lives of limited options further scarred by loss settle over it all.
For a summer movie, this picture is something else.
Miller utterly immerses herself in the role of suburban Philly single mom/grandmom Deb Callahan. She never married, gave birth at 16 and she treats teen daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) like a sister, consulting with her on her skin-tight mini-dress ensembles before every date.
Bridget herself is a new mother, and living under mom’s roof with her toddler Jesse requires a lot of tolerance, understanding, give and take.
“You make do with what’s left,” is all the advice Grandma Deb has to offer.
But the Callahan women are used to that. “Big sister” Cathy (Hendricks), the responsible one, lives across their beneath-the-water-tower dead end street from them. Cathy’s more Catholic, married with Terry (Sasso) with two tween boys.
And great-grandma (Madigan) is over there all the time.
The women bicker to the point of biting, share glasses of wine, offer unsolicited advice, with Deb re-directing many a conversation into sex and profanity, no matter how she was raised.
She’s sneaking around with a married man, so who is she to judge when Bridget keeps trying to make a go of it with the two-night stand stoner (Alex Neustaedter) who fathered her child?
One night, Bridget doesn’t come home. And if we thought Deb was manic, tetchy and high-strung before, well…
“Don’t do anything stupid, Deb” falls on deaf ears, as it must have for years. And as she frantically searches for her kid herself, roars at the police to get on the case and when a community search is at long last organized, breaks down, we see the beginning of her metamorphosis.
“American Woman” is how life goes on, diminished and deflated, after something like this.
Miller’s character arrives peppery, melts down in all the most wrenching ways, settles into furious and embittered as she takes up with and stays with a man who hits her, just to pay her bills, and finds her way to maturity in baby steps.
She raises the grandkid the way she raised Bridget — with a little wisdom, a lot of resignation and plenty of profanity.
“Ray (Pat Healy, playing a brute) is a hemorrhoid,” she sniffs to little Jesse. “A pain in the ass that won’t go away.
Scott’s elegant, compact drama slips through time easily — days pass here, years pass there.
Nobody else changes much, roles don’t shift. But raising a grandson mellows Deb. Eventually.
There’s little “quiet desperation” to these lives spent in houses with ill-fitting storm windows, late model cars in the driveways and owners wearing nametags to work.
There’s no country music on the soundtrack, but the simplicity of the ambitions and the day to day struggles unfold like a classic country tune — Rolling Rock beer, Parliament cigarettes, waitress or cashier, bad decisions passed generation to generation, salty dialogue and falling for the guy who’s held on to his IROC Camaro long past its expiration date (Aaron Paul).
It’s a kitchen sink melodrama, with too many conversations beginning with “Don’t start, NOT today” and ending with a slammed door, a pesky phone call demanding an apology and no time for reckoning and reasoning out how things are going right, or very wrong.
I love the lived-in reality captured here, lives with limited horizons, addictions, ill-advised tattoos, moments of blame and self-pity and small scale soap operatic struggles.
And in a cinema that strains to find actresses worth nominating for this profession’s highest honor, Miller brilliantly makes her statement in a tiny movie few will see, but which none who see will forget.
MPAA Rating:R for language, sexual content and brief drug use
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Amy Madigan, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira
Credits: Directed by Jake Scott, script by Brad Ingelsby. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:52