In “American Woman,” Sienna Miller faces such extreme highs and lows, her character grows so much, that you’d expect her arc to be displayed over multiple seasons of a television show.
Her character, Deb Callahan, is an emotionally mangled mother and grandmother whose life wanders between bad choices and decisions. That changes when Deb’s teenage daughter 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 a real and relatable character from start to finish.
That Miller creates a character who feels more like a neighbor than the typical film figure is what makes the performance all the more outstanding.
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. It’s always nice to see Sasso in a drama, as his strong acting skills often get overshadowed by his work in comedy.
Miller also got help from director Jake Scott, who, despite being 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-dried 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.
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. Miller has done exceptional work over the years, but “American Woman” is a masterclass in the difference between being an actor saying lines and being an actor who lives the role.
(Opens Friday at the Glenwood Arts, AMC Town Center.)
Rated R for language, drug use, sexual content.