Come to American Woman for the missing-person mystery, stay for the story of hope, endurance and survival. This portrait of Debra, a working-class woman in Pennsylvania whose teenage daughter Bridget disappears, almost justifies its bland title over the course of its runtime; instead of using Bridget's disappearance as a central plotline, American Woman becomes the story of a life, chronicling the events of a decade as Deb raises her grandson as her own and treks through a series of hardships with harrowing resilience.

The best thing about American Woman is undoubtedly Sienna Miller. She disappears into the role, tearing through Deb's transformations with expert detail and emotional depth, even when some confounding storytelling choices let her down. As American Woman leaps forward in time and illustrates Deb's life after tragedy, Miller communicates her internalised pain with her whole body. Deb begins as an unstoppable firecracker with big hair and exaggerated gestures, but gradually acquires a world-weary stillness that tells us so much more about her grief than dialogue ever could.

As Deb's hardships pile up and we observe intricate details of her life – such as chaperoning her grandson at his first school dance, or helping unionised nurses achieve fair pay – American Woman sometimes loses momentum. While these scenes flesh her character out in a believable, recognisable way, it's unclear what they add to the overarching plot, and the film's final impact would remain the same without them.

But director Jake Scott sticks the landing with his finely detailed supporting characters – particularly Deb's sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks), with whom she shares a tense but unbreakable bond – and strong visual flourishes. In the former half of the film, a grief-stricken, intoxicated Deb runs her car off the road. I'll have the image of her ghostly figure (shot from afar, illuminated in stark white) walking away from the wreckage, a desperate woman driven to the brink, burned in my memory forever.


American Woman

Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso
Director: Jake Scott
Running Time: 111 minutes
Rating: R13 (domestic violence, sexual material & offensive language)
Verdict: An overdue showcase of Sienna Miller's extraordinary talents.
When: American Woman screens again July 26, Rialto Newmarket, 6:15pm; July 28, Event Cinemas Westgate, 6pm