The kidnapping of Patty Hearst, heiress to a massive newspaper empire and famed abductee-turned-radical, is an endlessly fascinating piece of history from a chaotic time when social order itself seemed to be collapsing. There’s so much ambiguity inherent in her story and to this day its difficult to know exactly what she was subjected to during her time in captivity. Over the years, there has been heavy debate regarding the extent to which she was brainwashed: at what times was she a helpless victim and at what times was she a willing participant? So it’s a shame, then, that American Woman, which tells the story of her last days in the custody of the Symbionese Liberation Army through the eyes of a pacifist political activist named Jenny, fails to capitalize on so much of what makes it compelling.

Without a doubt, the strongest element of the film is the performance of Jenny by Hong Chau (Downsizing). She brings a capable, level-headed presence to the tumultuous band of refugees, and her soft-spoken manner belies a moral backbone of steel. There are tantalizing hints regarding her background as what some would perhaps uncharitably term a domestic terrorist (she bombed political targets, but is quick to note that they were unoccupied and that she never would have killed anyone.) Honestly, I think I might have rather watched a film exclusively about her exploits in political activism, never mind her connection to Patty Hearst.

American Woman is most sure-footed when dealing with the relationship between Jenny and Patty (here referred to as Pauline, and played by a fragile-looking Sarah Gadon). In the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong, the two are able to take advantage of the chaos to escape the cabin they’ve been sequestered in with abusive radical Juan (an unflatteringly over the top John Gallagher Jr) and his girlfriend Yvonne. From here, the film somewhat awkwardly transitions into a road trip film, while the two women learn more about each other and Jenny tries to gauge the intentions and potential ulterior motives of the innocent-looking former debutante she’s traveling with. Their bond (and our interest in the narrative) grows exponentially the longer they’re away from the cabin, and their moments of camaraderie are well-executed if not particularly tied to the larger story in any significant way.

Ultimately, there’s not enough here to sustain an entire film. It feels somehow unfocused, as though the filmmakers were unsure of exactly what story they were interested in telling, and what the point of it was meant to be. It’s hard to ignore the sense that events are unfolding onscreen in a haphazard manner, and not for any particular reason. Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon acquit themselves admirably, but are unable to fully rescue the muddled narrative of American Woman. The film had the opportunity to tell either the interesting true-life story about Patty Hearst, or delve into the character of a political activist with strong moral objections to the Vietnam War and a destructive yet somehow strangely peaceful streak. Both would likely have made for a reasonably strong film. It neglected to do either.

Rating: ★★½

Directed by: Semi Chellas
Cast: Hong Chau, Sara Gadon, John Gallagher Jr.