Jake Scott’s dreamlike ode to several generations of women in an American family is let down by a meandering script.
A lot of people toss around the term “generational divide”, but it’s rare that anyone tries to exacerbate it. Not a person, necessarily, but a writer—one whose most tantalizing ideas remain frustratingly out of reach. Such is the case with Jake “son of Ridley” Scott’s American Woman, in which writer Brad Ingelsby tries to look at family shifts over time. The archetypes pile on. The hyperrealism creeps in. Time goes on, and memories begin to fade. It’s a fascinating idea with more contradictions than the filmmakers can handle.
Sienna Miller plays Deb, a working-class woman in rural, mid-2000s Pennsylvania. Deb lives with her teenage daughter, Bridget (Sky Ferreira), as well as Bridget’s toddler son, Jesse. And while Deb may not obsess over family, it’s always around her; her sister, Katherine (Christina Hendricks), lives just across the street with her own respective family.
Scott and Ingelsby never go out of their way to give a sense of time to Deb’s world. It’s the technology on the peripheries that point to anything outside their bubble, and even that doesn’t say much. There’s an ephemerality to American Woman that, when leaned into, works well, but its wildly uneven pace and myopic consequences are like oil on top of water. The oil is the family life over the span of a decade. The water, as it turns out, is what most movies would focus on for the entire script: Bridget’s disappearance in the first act.
That sounds a little big to only mention at the end of the third paragraph, huh? The truth is that Ingelsby’s script doesn’t care at all about Bridget. She’s at once a plot catalyst and a specter without a trace. Deb and her family look for Bridget to no avail, and after half an hour or so, the script gives up hope along with them. It isn’t just that Bridget has vanished: an entire generation is gone, leaving one Deb caring for her grandson. This modernity should be daunting, but the picture lacks a specific enough perspective for enough shifts or contrasts to develop.
American Woman isn’t okay with simplicity: it insists on more characters, more subplots, and a frenetic pace that plays against its archetypal foundations.
The main issue isn’t Scott’s direction; there’s little to say in that department. American Woman falters in its script, piling on plot threads and characters that until life operates like a math permutation instead of flowing freely. Most scripts start with a grid. This one still feels like it: Deb is the origin, Katherine is her reflection, Jesse is below her, and Katherine’s own son is the opposite of that. This extends to supporting characters as well, and once Ingelsby’s dynamics begin to repeat themselves, there’s no spontaneity. There’s just a solid premise.
There’s no doubt that some of this was intentional on Ingelsby’s part to convey a sense of repetition, and from a basic perspective, it gets the job done. Traditions get passed down; family traits and relationship issues might as well be hereditary. It could be a solid dynamic, but the script tries to juggle this banality with the unpredictability of passing time, and the link between internal and external drives plays much better on a scene-to-scene level than as a feature arc.
The quieter scenes, like when family members and first dates clash against a cloud of insecurities, work best. Miller’s frayed energy throughout embellishes what could have fallen into blue-collar clichés, and she and Hendricks share an unspoken bond. But American Woman isn’t okay with simplicity: it insists on more characters, more subplots, and a frenetic pace that plays against its archetypal foundations.
By happenstance or by some odd twist of fate, Scott’s film draws several comparisons to Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White. While that picture made a much more pointed attempt to track its characters’ world both in culture, technology, and aesthetics, John Mathieson’s (Mary Queen of Scots) cinematography does little to differentiate the time periods. Even the grieving absurdism of Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper feels just out of reach here, and the attempts at matching smaller and larger arcs don’t work enough.
Questions go unanswered, characters remain solitary, and life continues to go on. This goes on until Scott and Ingelsby decide that audiences need answers, no matter how slight or calculated they may be. What they forget to consider is that maybe some things are better left unsaid.
American Woman is currently in limited release.