In “American Woman,” Sienna Miller delivers a subtly evolving portrait of a woman who, over several years, finds herself. Despite its title — which suggests a character more iconic than the idiosyncratic one we’re left with — it’s not an especially profound story. But it is a movingly rendered one, made watchable by an actress whose elastic performance bookends the film with two very different people.
Perhaps it should be called “American Women.”
As the film opens, Miller’s Deb is a 32-year-old grocery-store clerk: a single mother of a teenage daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), and grandmother to Bridget’s infant son, whom Deb reluctantly agrees to babysit whenever Bridget — a bit of a wild child — gets together with her no-good baby-daddy (Alex Neustaedter).
That dynamic tells us most of what we need to know about Deb. She had a kid when she was still a kid herself, and she hasn’t managed to prevent Bridget from repeating her own mistakes. In other words, Deb wasn’t ready to be a mother when she became one, and she’s still struggling to get the knack of it now.
Her growth as a character is precipitated by tragedy. Bridget disappears one day, and Deb becomes, overnight, her grandson’s primary caregiver.
“American Woman” is not, however, a missing-person mystery (except to the degree that Deb herself is AWOL, as someone who may think that she deserves respect, but who hasn’t quite figured out how to get it). One constant, over a narrative that covers several years, and that shows Deb going back to school and getting incrementally better jobs, is her bad taste in men. We never meet Bridget’s father — a deadbeat, we’re told — but we do see the men who come into Deb’s life after him: the married man she’s having an affair with (Kentucker Audley); the controlling batterer (Pat Healy); and the charming philanderer (Aaron Paul).
Meanwhile, Deb’s grandson grows up, as Deb does, too. It’s more than slightly disorienting to constantly hear characters refer to Deb, at 38, as “Grandma.”
The arc of the story suggests, not so subtly, that there’s something about mothering that makes a woman. I’m not sure that’s the intent of the director, Jake Scott (“Welcome to the Rileys”), or screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (“Run All Night”), but it’s unavoidably implied. The arc of Deb’s maternal transformation — in which she steps into the role of mother that she once resisted becoming — is the armature on which “American Woman” hangs.
But over that skeleton of a story, Miller fleshes out a character that, in the hands of a lesser actress, may have seemed melodramatic at best, or sexist at worst. Miller’s Deb grows on you — strong, capable, grounded yet ready to take flight — as she emerges, from the chrysalis of grief, a butterfly.