We just want to find her and bring her home.
If you want to get an idea about what to expect from Jake Scott‘s American Woman, look no further than a scene between Sienna Miller and Amy Madigan at the halfway mark. The former is Debra, a woman who must ultimately cope with the disappearance of the daughter (Sky Ferreira‘s Bridget) she gave birth to at sixteen while also refocusing her life to raise the grandson that’s been left behind. The latter plays her mother Peggy, a woman who cares deeply despite being walled off as a result of a shared history that’s revealed through their resonant performances above mere dialogue. There’s a mix of resentment and shame that culminates in an unforgettable moment of gift giving from Peggy to Deb. The ensuing awkwardness via gratitude speaks volumes.
Peggy perceives an invitation for a hug and starts moving closer just as Deb turns to leave, the interaction complete. Physical affection simply isn’t in the cards—at least not yet. Deb’s a pain to her sister (Christina Hendricks‘ Katherine) and brother-in-law (Will Sasso‘s Terry), but her love from them is visible. Screenwriter Brad Ingelsby is therefore creating mirrors. Because Deb was at odds with Peggy’s faith to cultivate disappointment for not living up to the conservative chastity of her church, she vows to not do the same with Bridget. They conversely respect each other even when faced with disapproval. But now she’s gone. Peggy pushed Deb away and they must in turn endure the effect. Deb held Bridget close and they might never see each other again.
The film isn’t, however, spouting morality at the immoral. It’s presenting the tough situations we must confront and accept as a part of something as complicated as family. Fate has a way of making it so that our actions are meaningless when placed against random acts of bad luck, tragedy, and grief. Would things have been different if Peggy didn’t presumably wear a judgmental look of displeasure upon finding out her youngest daughter was pregnant? Maybe. Would events have changed if Deb were harder on her own kid once Bridget started making similar decisions? Maybe. We don’t have the ability to time travel, though. Hindsight is a luxury too often rendered inert. How do we move forward? How do we grow in spite of what happens?
That’s what American Woman focuses on during Debra’s eleven-year personal evolution in the wake of such a nightmare. This was a woman more prone to screaming at her sister (who lives across the street) than thanking her for watching baby Jesse when his mom and grandma were out. She would sneak around with a married man and ignore the potential consequences because she was trying to “live the life” she maybe didn’t while being a mother. So there’s anger when Bridget goes missing. There’s frustration because she doesn’t initially think the worst when there are so many alternatives to consider. Only through a well-executed jump cut that finds Jesse (Aidan McGraw) in school and a stranger (Pat Healy‘s Ray) at home do we understand the worst came true.
Debra’s previously hot-to-trot identity is now one born from necessity as a second-time mother attempting to finish college while a domineering Ray pays her mortgage. It’s one more reason for her family to conjure sympathy that stings her as badly as Peggy’s disappointment a decade earlier. This is about survival and discovering a new path even if it means compromising, though. She’s cognizant of the issues surrounding her and is working tirelessly to dig out of that hole. She and Katherine are closer even if she and her mother remain at odds. And Deb has not forgotten Bridget. She never will. Not in these bad times or the better ones to come with a potential suitor in Terry’s co-worker Chris (Aaron Paul). Her love for Bridget doesn’t waver.
More role reversals arise. Deb was Bridget only to become Peggy. She was the mistress only to become the victimized wife. She was a mother before she could become an adult and a so-called failure before she could become a success in her own eyes as well as those of others. Each step proves to be a nuanced transformation thanks to Scott’s quiet direction and Miller’s stunning lead performance. Her Debra is a woman who grows in maturity to check boxes she used to abhor without ever losing the fire of independence that burns within. Maybe she becomes jaded by the hardships that happened and continue to happen, but she still allows a door of optimism to remain open even if it slams shut from time to time.
As years progress and familial dynamics shift, we can tell that lessons have been learned and forgiveness reached even if both only occur in the margins and gaps between the advancing time that ages Jesse from McGraw to Aidan Fiske. Rather than change the characters themselves, Ingelsby changes their attitudes and relationships. Peggy (it’s great to see Madigan in a role this substantial and affecting) will forever be ruled by her faith and the code born from it, but the others’ acceptance of that reality softens its impact and makes her more willing to bend. Debra will forever be that woman who lives with love and passion first, but she discovers new outlets and purpose in which to place it. Always reliant, she becomes relied upon.
This is a support system that sticks together through thick and thin; a family that pushes meaningless arguments aside to prove whose corner they’re in when real drama arises. The film is about the depths of our love and the lengths we’ll go to keep it intact since leaving it all behind makes things worse the farther we get even if things get easier short term. And none of it feels inauthentic—not even a wellness check on Jesse’s father (Alex Neustaedter‘s Tyler) that could have been cut if not for its window onto Deb’s growth at quelling the rage that consumed her through such unthinkable anguish. The ending might not deliver a happily ever after, but it hints that the possibility for one might have finally arrived.