“American Woman” opens with a scene from the recent past of a mother who had her daughter so young that she becomes more of a best friend to her daughter than a mother.

You might think you can size up Jake Scott’s latest film by that first act, but “American Woman” evolves into something else entirely. Sienna Miller (“American Sniper”) pushes aside supporting wifey parts for a lead performance that should at the least do for her what “The Good Girl” did for Jennifer Aniston.

Brad Ingelsby’s script creates such a compelling story, so early on that even though we think we know where this one is heading it’s impossible to turn away. It’s a film about self-discovery under the most difficult of circumstances and explores rustbelt, poor white trash society, in a way we haven’t seen since “The Fighter.”

A single mother at 16-years-old, Debra (Miller) raised Bridget (Sky Ferreira) with little discipline or structure. So it was no surprise when Bridget also has a baby at 17.

Debra hasn’t done anything with her life. She’s a cashier at the local supermarket who lives across the street from her uptight, judgmental sister (Christina Hendricks) and sleeps around with married men. Debra’s days of spending what little money she has on cigarettes and beer ends abruptly when Bridget disappears, leaving the 28-year-old grandma to care for her infant grandson.

Still at rock bottom and five years later, Debra is still coping, trying to become something else, putting herself through college and beginning to learn from her mistakes instead of repeating them. Debra suffers for all the bad decisions she made in her youth but seems determined to give her grandson Patrick a better chance than she gave her daughter.

I wasn’t sure Miller could play this character convincingly. For better or worse, the roles she has been offered (or chosen) have never allowed her much in the way of character development.

Debra is someone who is forced to go on an extraordinary journey by circumstances she never saw coming. In one scene her mother, played by Academy Award nominee Amy Madigan, gifts her a framed encouragement photo titled “Perseverance,” which is ironic, but also a testament to what this woman goes through, much of it her own making.

“American Woman” is divided into three clearly defined acts, wild and carefree Deb, struggling to better herself Deb and Deb accepting and moving on. The story has an underlying heartbreak here than most of these “poor white trash” stories fail to achieve. The screenplay allows you to hate this character in the beginning but empathize with her by the end. She is both the antagonist and the protagonist all in one.

Like Miller, Hendricks (“Bad Santa 2”) has always been cast for her physical attributes and little else. She too is given a character to build and grow into through the time span of the film.

The dialogue might not be superb, but the plot and the storytelling of this film certainly is. The first act makes it feel like a Lifetime movie, but the nuance we gain following Debra’s rock bottom moment takes “American Woman” in an entirely different direction.

Only then do you see why the studio made a point to mention this film shared the same producer as the Oscar-winning “Manchester By the Sea.” “American Woman” has something we can all identify with; a life blown off course by unexpected circumstances, with a haunting wake-up call for a second chance.

Final Thought – “American Woman” is brutally honest storytelling, Sienna Miller is devastatingly powerful.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit texasartfilm.com.

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