Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Movie Review: American Woman

American Woman ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Semi Chellas.
Written by: Semi Chellas based on the novel by Susan Choi.
Starring: Hong Chau (Jenny), Sarah Gadon (Pauline), John Gallagher Jr. (Juan), Lola Kirke (Yvonne), Ellen Burstyn (Miss Dolly), David Cubitt (Agent John Spivey), Matt Gordon (Bob), Dylan House (Michael), Jordan Pettle (Rob Frazier), Alicia Richardson (Sandy), Richard Walters (Thomas). 

American Woman is another take on the Patty Hearst story, and unfortunately one that doesn’t really add much to what has come before. Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst (1988) remains probably the best of the films – and that one pretty much already had the Hearst as enigma take on the famous heiress – kidnapped by revolutionaries, and eventually joining their cause. In American Woman, writer/director Semi Chellas goes a little further – making the Hearst stand-in, Pauline (Sarah Gadon) a supporting character – while the film focuses on Jenny (Hong Chau) instead. But despite the talents of the two leading actresses – not to mention the supporting cast including John Gallagher Jr., Lola Kirke and Ellen Burstyn, American Woman never quite leads anywhere interesting. It’s certainly a movie made for 2020 audiences – with perhaps a deeper understanding on the dynamics in play, the phony revolutionaries, and misogyny at play. But it doesn’t do anything interesting enough with the premise to justify another go around with this story.
When the story opens, Jenny has already gone underground. She was once a bomb maker for the movement – something that got her boyfriend arrested, so now she’s in hiding – working as a live-in caregiver to Miss Dolly (Burstyn), with not much connection to the movement anymore. Then one of her old contacts arrives to meet her – and convinces her to head to an isolated cabin in the woods. It’s there where Pauline is in hiding with her boyfriend/handler Juan (Gallagher Jr.) and another cohort – Yvonne (Kirke). Jenny is told that it is here where the Pauline and Juan will write their book – and how it will open the eyes of square America – and bring them to their cause. They just need someone to do all the grunt work – groceries, etc. – so they can write in peace, and stay in hiding.
But when Jenny gets there, she discovers no real writing going on. Most of their movement has been killed in a raid, and Juan is very angry about it, but doesn’t really have any sort of plan of what to do other than to rant and rave about the pigs. Pauline is basically a cipher of a character – she is quiet, doesn’t say very much. When she does speak, Juan mostly just dismisses and degrades her. She comes from a family of capitalist pigs, so what really does she understand? Jenny, at first, is sympathetic to the movement – but as she learns more details about what Pauline has been through, her sympathies shift directly onto Pauline – who she sees as abused and brainwashed, not incorrectly.
If American Woman gets anything right, it’s the misogyny inherent in the 1960s and 1970s, even among those who claim to be progressive. Juan talks a good game – to Jenny about her Asian American heritage for instance – but he’s just as much of a sexist pig as anyone, and a racist one as well. One of the best scenes in a subtle one – when he talks about Jenny’s race being an asset – and see insults him just in the way she says Juan – to this guy who obviously very white.
Overall though, I’m not quite sure what American Woman is really saying about, well, anything. The film follows Jenny’s lead – leading us to feel sympathy towards Pauline, until the final scenes when we don’t anymore. But Pauline never really becomes anything more than a cipher. Gadon, an immensely talented actress, plays the role as intended – but honestly, you are never quite sure what, if anything, is going on in her head. This may have worked had Jenny been a more interesting character – but despite the talented Hong Chau’s performance, there isn’t much there either. Mostly, the film just frustrates – bringing up interesting ideas, and then doing nothing with them.

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