What starts in the drama “American Woman” as a scenario for a thriller — a woman’s teen daughter goes suddenly missing — transforms into something deeper and more emotional, thanks to a stand-out performance by Sienna Miller.
Miller plays Debra Callahan, who at 32 has lived more than her share of life in her Pennsylvania town. A mother at 16, she’s now living with her 16-year-old daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), who has a one-year-old son of her own. They live across the street from Debra’s older sister, Katherine (Christina Hendricks), who has three kids with her working-stiff husband Terry (Will Sasso). Debra’s love life is a mess, as she’s seeing a married man, Brett (Kentucker Audley).
One night, after Bridget goes to reconcile with her son’s layabout dad, Tyler (Alex Neustaedter), Bridget never comes home. At first, Debra blames Tyler, but as days pass, and volunteers comb nearby fields for a sign of Bridget, Debra must come to grips that Bridget is never coming back, and the police may never find out what happened.
Cut forward six years, as Debra is raising her grandson, Jesse (Aidan McGraw), and moving from an abusive boyfriend, Ray (Pat Healy), to nice-guy Chris (Aaron Paul). Cut forward another six years, when Jesse is 13 (and played by Aidan Fiske), Debra has a steady job and a seemingly solid marriage to Chris. At each stop, though, Bridget’s absence leaves a hole in her soul.
Screenwriter Brad Inglesby, who has written such working-class crime dramas as “Run All Night” and “Out of the Furnace,” shifts gears well with this thoughtful look at a woman trying to rebuild a life after an unspeakable loss. Director Jake Scott (who directed the 2010 Sundance entry “Welcome to the Reillys”) leans into the more predictable soap-opera moments a bit heavily, but the feelings are authentic and the dialogue understated.
The cast, which includes Amy Madigan as Debra and Katherine’s judgmental mom, is first-rate. The breakout is Miller, who usually dives into chameleonic roles (“American Sniper,” “The Lost City of Z” and “Burnt” are recent examples) but here lets her brassiness attract the full spotlight. It’s a gutsy, commanding performance that we all knew Miller was capable of doing, and makes “American Woman” an intense and gratifying experience.
Opening Friday, June 14, in select theaters, including Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for language, sexual content and brief drug use. Running time: 111 minutes.