The general nature of a feature film often makes it difficult for an actor to show growth in a character. They might have a couple of moments of clarity along the way, but the confines of time create walls that are difficult to breach.
But it's not impossible for the right actor and script. This is the case with "American Woman," starring Sienna Miller, who faces extreme highs and lows through a broad spectrum of emotions to play. The growth Miller gets to display is so extended it's the kind that's usually reserved for multiple seasons of a television show.
Deb Callahan (Miller) is an emotionally mangled mother and grandmother whose life wanders between bad choices and decisions. That changes when Deb's teenage daughter mysteriously 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 all accomplished without having broad elements to play such as Deb suddenly becoming a sleuth to find her missing child. This is a real and relatable character from start to finish.
Miller's playing a woman who is compelling to watch because she resonates with truth. That she 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 dry 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. These moments are played out so naturally there are moments when "American Woman" almost has a documentary feel.
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's 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.
Cast: Sienna Miller, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan, Christina Hendricks, Will Sasso.
Director: Jake Scott.
Rated: R for language, drug use, sexual content.
Running time: 111 minutes.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.