It’s the ‘70s and underground radical Jenny (Hong Chau) is tasked with supervising fellow comrades Juan (John Gallagher Jr.), Yvonne (Lola Kirke), and newly “liberated” Pauline (Sarah Gadon). Jenny wrestles with her housemates’ violent activism methods and questions the reality of Pauline’s autonomy and conversion. As Juan and Yvonne grow restless, tensions flare, and Jenny is obliged with Pauline’s safety as well as her own.
AMERICAN WOMAN (2020) is Semi Chellas’ directorial debut with her adaptation of Susan Choi’s novel of the same name and is inspired by the events of the Patty Hearst story. Chellas has created an enthralling drama with complex characters, and the actors deliver talented, intriguing performances. Chau as strong and seemingly stolid, Jenny is impeccable. She effectively conveys Jenny’s strong and hardened emotional core, but also her peaceful ideology and gentleness. Gadon, as Pauline, coaxes moments of tenderness from Chau; the two are generous scene partners and their moments on-screen are engrossing and feel immensely private. Gallagher Jr and Kirke as lovers, Juan and Yvonne, also serve real and tangible tension to the ensemble.
The film’s suspenseful tone is achieved with detailed sound editing, coupled with clean and visceral images. A favorite example of this is when cicadas can be heard singing in the sunlit trees outside, making the heat palpable or Jenny’s creaky footsteps in the darkened stairwell as she eavesdrops on her peers while recording. The film is cleverly edited to convey information as well as emotion. A birds-eye shot of the wintry road travelled is used to effectively convey time and distance, and serves a larger symbolic meaning.
There’s much left unsaid in AMERICAN WOMAN and requires audiences to listen and read each frame. While the viewer is given the information they need, they are still compelled to read each character’s facial expression and action in order to cipher their true intentions. Sophisticated as each actor is to achieve this, the script and dialogue also rise to meet the level. Political themes and motifs are scattered throughout the film in conversations between several different people. This causes the viewer to develop their own meaning not only as to the title, but also glean the message through different viewpoints. It’s effective and provokes a higher thought process from the viewer about the film’s message, as opposed to the visual barrages and lengthy speeches that often accompany political themes in cinema. Chellas has made an incredibly strong start to her feature length directorial career. She has already been noted as an accomplished writer with TV series like THE ROMANOFFS (2018) and MAD MEN (2007- 2015) and this film is another credit to the list. AMERICAN WOMAN is sure to intrigue audiences with its intense quiet and its many private meanings.