Sienna Miller Gives Career-High Performance in Gripping Character Drama ‘American Woman’

Sienna Miller, the glamorous British actress whose personal life was tabloid fodder in the previous decade, never really got her due for being a gifted and versatile actress, but that will most likely change sooner rather than later, thanks to her taking on strong roles like that of a single mother in the indie drama “American Woman.” Miller gives one of the best performances of her career thus far as Deb, a lower-middle class woman living in the Rust Belt who learns to persevere under the worst of circumstances.

When we first meet Deb, she’s already a grandmother, despite only be in her thirties. She had a child at 16, and her daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), did the same. Not a whole lot about Deb’s backstory is given except the early pregnancy and the fact that she was close to her father who has since passed. Christina Hendricks co-stars as Katherine, Deb’s more stable sister who serves as her foil. While Deb has an affair with a married man (Kentucker Audley), her sister is devoted to her reliable husband, Terry (comedian Will Sasso in a dramatic turn). There’s also Peggy (Amy Madigan), their mother, the person who proves to get under Deb’s skin the most in some of the more emotionally-driven scenes.

The story heads in a different direction after Bridget goes out for dinner with her son’s father (Alex Neustaedter) and fails to return. In the aftermath, a devastated Deb looks for answers, and Miller is effective in these scenes in which Deb is at her most vulnerable and helpless. But this is not a true crime film, but rather a very human drama about a woman who is forced to stay in forward motion not only for her own sake, but for the sake of her grandson.

Fast forward six years later, and Deb has let go of some of her self-destructive habits, but not her dependency on toxic men. Her boyfriend Ray (Pat Healy) financially provides for her and her grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), but at a price. With support from her family, she makes some changes, including returning to school. Enter Chris (Aaron Paul), the stereotypical nice guy who comes in and sweeps Deb off her feel and loves her grandson as her own. But this is no Lifetime film, and the world created by director Jake Scott is one in which the viewer is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even when they are expected, the blows to Deb aren’t any less heart wrenching.

But Deb doesn’t live a life that affords her time to wallow, and by the third act, when Jesse is a teenager (now played by Aidan Fiske), she’s finally a full-fledged adult, working an administrative job at a nursing home. “American Woman” is gripping from beginning to end. The trailer makes it seem like the sole focus is on the search for Bridget, but there are so many other moving parts. This film is really about Deb’s journey, emotional and otherwise. Even when answers are given regarding Bridget’s disappearance, they are given offscreen. This is a wise choice by Scott to keep Deb the focus, as Miller is so compelling as she comes to grips with a grim reality. Still, after all this, the film ends on a hopeful note, with more forward motion.

American Woman” opens June 14 in select theaters.