There are so many movies about missing daughters and the grieving mothers they leave behind. The mothers cry, beg the public for any relevant information about their daughter’s disappearance through a melodramatic press conference, and dedicate their lives to seeking justice. They are, in a sense, frozen in time, unable to move past the very hour of their child’s abduction. American Woman is not that movie.

Debra (Sienna Miller) is a 32-year-old mother and grandmother, living with her teenage daughter Bridget and Bridget’s infant son Jesse. She is a fiery free spirit whose antics serve as a constant support of frustration and amusement to her loving, stable sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks), who lives in the house across the street. Theirs is a tight-knit family, the stretch of grass and pavement between their houses turning into merely an extension of their one large shared home. They live in the sort of rust belt Pennsylvania town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and reputations linger. Everyone seems exhausted all the time, and all the wallpaper is faded.

One night, Bridget goes out with her son’s father, hoping that they can reconcile as parents if not as lovers. But they get into a fight, and Bridget decides to walk the three miles to her house. She never makes it back.

As time goes by, and the police fail to turn up any leads, Debra has to come to terms with the fact that she may never have answers, and carry on with her life. Wealthy women may have the luxury of wallowing tragedy, but Debra, however heartbroken she is, has a mortgage, a job with no opportunity of advancement without an expensive education, and a grandson to raise.

American Woman features Sienna Miller at her absolute finest, finally giving her a role worthy of her talents. Her performance as Debra is wonderfully layered and full of life. She’s resolute in her desire not to be reliant on anyone, whether financially or emotionally. Constantly evolving as a person and adapting to new situations without sacrificing her own needs, she is a pure force of will. It’s tremendously satisfying to watch her grow into a confident woman who is unwilling to settle for anything less than what she deserves, and Miller turns in one of the strongest, most understated performances of the year.

There’s an authenticity to American Woman that makes the emotional content of the film particularly resonant. You can feel the love each member of the family has for one another, despite the constant bickering — when Debra and Katherine talk, they’re occasionally overcome with fits of giggles as they try to tell stories to one another. Katherine’s husband Terry (Will Sasso) may have kicked Debra out of his house in the middle of a screaming match, but he’s also the first to come to her aid when a boyfriend turns abusive, and is brought to tears while giving a speech at her wedding. They’re all real, flawed, contradictory people in a way that few film characters are. And because of these little moments, we feel the connection Debra has to her family, her community, all the more keenly.

It feels strange to say this about a film where a woman loses her daughter, but American Woman isn’t a sad movie. It’s an incredibly hopeful movie about a woman who had a very sad thing happen to her, and she somehow found the strength to build a better life and not close herself off from people who love her. In “American Woman,” Debra doesn’t just survive: she lives.

Rating: ★★★★

Signature Entertainment presents American Woman in Cinemas and on Digital HD 11th October and Blu-ray 14th October

Directed by: Jake Scott
Written by: Brad Ingelsby
Cast: Sienna Miller, Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Will Sasso, Sky Ferreira, Pat Healy, Alex Neustaedter