When the Lord said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” He wasn’t referring to American Woman’s Deb Callahan (Sienna Miller). Deb can’t remove the butt from between her lips long enough to cuddle with her teenage daughter, suffers from bouts of hockey temper, and if what big sis Katherine (Christina Hendricks) says is true, her younger sibling has “slept with half the men in Delaware County.” If ever a character courted chastisement, it’s she.
Chain-smoking before the mirror, Deb admires her skimpy hot pink finery, so tight as to appear spray-painted on. She calls for the help of her 16-year-old daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira), which amounts to sitting bedside and listening to mom’s insecure ramblings. Deb fibs about seeing a new guy; tonight’s “date” marks the return of a hitched-and-horny jerk whose semi-compliant wife is hip to the game. Bridget will spend her evening fighting with her disinterested baby daddy Tyler (Alex Neustaedter). Mom leaves, and daughter assumes her place in the looking glass. It’s the last time we see Bridget alive.
Like mother, like daughter: both were essentially single parents at 16. Her job as a supermarket cashier earns Deb just enough to afford a second shot at parenthood, playing surrogate mom to grandson Jesse. All this while trying to unravel the mystery of Bridget’s disappearance. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare and a story that for all intents and purposes should have required a Lifetime logo branded in the lower-right corner of each shot. Writer Brad Ingelsby and director Jake Scott instead walk us through Deb’s hellish, decades-long search for her daughter’s whereabouts. It’s a process of redemption too powerful and blissfully saccharine-free to be deemed cable-ready.
Tough though she may be, it would be hard to envision Deb’s survival were it not for her family. Proximity breeds contempt: living directly across the street from Deb are Katherine and her husband Terry (look how far Will Sasso’s come from Curly Howard) and their mother Peggy (Amy Madigan). One would be equally loath to assign Miller picture-carrying status. She may control the biggest slice of the pie, but it’s her supporting cast that has the crust needed to make her shine.
The onslaught of hardship that shapes Deb’s life mounts as her story bounds through the years. Live-in boyfriends may come and go, but the one thing that stands eternal is her residence. The functional, nondescript ranch house adds as much character to the story as its occupants; near the close, a one-take mini-Magnificent Ambersons pass is made through the vacant homestead.
With so many hard-fought confrontations to choose from, one stands out: in a blinding moment of mutual largesse, Deb and Tyler agree to meet so that Jesse may spend time with his dad. A playground fills the Panavision frame, with Tyler seated swing left and Deb swing right. The adult Tyler finds room in his heart to forgive Deb for nearly ruining his life after she publicly branded him Bridget’s kidnapper. He also expresses gratitude to Deb for watching after his boy. The scene couldn’t have felt more authentic were it hidden camera footage capturing real people. One reviewer took the filmmakers to task over the attention (or lack thereof) given the aging process. But far from the madding garden variety stick figures found padding the background of most contemporary melodramas, the writing and pacing elevate the film to a level that allows its cast a chance to grow and evolve alongside one another. All of the latex-wrinkles and Shinola-white locks in Hollywood couldn’t have added more authenticity to these characterizations.
Nor can this critic fault Miller for accepting roles in just enough high ticket blockbusters (Stardust, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) to maintain the movie star lifestyle to which she’s grown accustomed. Just so long as there is enough quality work, generally in smaller films to offset the dross. Performances in Layer Cake, The Catcher Was a Spy, American Sniper and several more bring harmony to Miller’s filmography. Keep your Carol Danvers and Jean Grey: Miller’s career-topping performance touts a stronger, more determined female than any we’ve seen this year.
A film by this name, released at this point in time, could have gone either way: a Rebel Wilson-ish romcom or a spot-on slice of the American way, carved with a serrated edge. It’s amazing how much ground this covers in a relatively scant 111 minutes. The ending isn’t a case of Rocky dancing happily-ever-after atop the Museum steps — right sport, wrong contender. Think Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta seated before the mirror, the once-blind pugilist who, if not 100% able to see, at least able to look his reflection in the eye. Sienna Miller’s tale of a survivor is not to be missed. Do your bit to give this film the attention it so richly deserves.