2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘American Woman’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in "American Woman"
Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in “American Woman” (Photo by Ken Woroner)

“American Woman”

Directed by Semi Chellas

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The dramatic film “American Woman” (starring Hong Chau) has the unfortunate coincidence of having the same title as another dramatic film named “American Woman” (starring Sienna Miller), with both movies about females who’ve gone missing—although each movie has very different reasons for why these females have disappeared and why people are searching for them. The “American Woman” movie starring Hong Chau and directed by Semi Chellas is the one with the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it will be released after the Miller-starring “American Woman” movie.

At the beginning of the “American Woman” movie starring Chau, Chau’s Jenny character is being interrogated by a law-enforcement officer for a serious crime. The rest of the movie is a flashback to what led to Jenny’s arrest. We find out that Jenny is a Japanese-American who has been living in 1970s upstate New York, doing renovation work for a racist retiree named Miss Dolly (played by Ellen Burstyn).

Jenny’s background is murky, but during the course of the movie, we find out that she’s no mild-mannered fixer-upper. She’s been heavily involved in radical, anti-government activities that include bombings and robberies in the name of protests against the Vietnam War and the establishment. And she’s an FBI outlaw. Miss Dolly suspects that Jenny is hiding from the law—but Miss Dolly isn’t quite sure what crime(s) Jenny has committed—and she uses that suspicion to take advantage of Jenny by making her work long hours for below the market wage.

We see that Jenny is writing to someone named Michael, who’s in prison. Michael is part of a mysterious underground network of radicals that has committed a series of bank robberies and bombings throughout the United States. Their crime spree includes kidnapping a newspaper heiress named Pauline (played by Sarah Gadon), who’s joined the group in their criminal activities and may or may not have been brainwashed. (The Pauline character is obviously inspired by the real-life Patty Hearst.)

In Jenny’s letter to Michael, she agrees to help hide and take care of three of the group’s fugitives while they write a book that explains their political beliefs and why they’ve committed extreme crimes. Jenny knows that the underground network is financed by criminal activities, so by taking care of these fugitives, she knows that she will have to commit other crimes too. We find out later that the mysterious “Michael” in the letter is Michael Fisher, one of the leaders of the underground network, and Jenny (who also uses the name Iris) is his girlfriend, and she has a history of making bombs.

Jenny quits her job, and buys an old car from Miss Dolly before she leaves. The fugitives are staying in Monticello, New York, at an isolated farmhouse that they’ve rented under aliases. The outlaws whom Jenny has been tasked with caring for are heiress Pauline, who’s been nicknamed “Princess”; bossy Juan (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a domineering jerk; and Juan’s romantic partner Yvonne (played by Lola Kirke), who is very passive and somewhat afraid of Juan.

In one scene in the movie, we see why Yvonne might be afraid of Juan. When Juan orders Pauline to do something, and she responds, “Don’t tell me what to do,” he hits her in the face. Jenny also has an independent streak, so she naturally clashes with Juan too, but since Juan and the rest of the group are dependent on Jenny to do their grocery shopping and other outside activities, Juan doesn’t get physically abusive with Jenny. Pauline and Jenny’s mutual dislike of Juan bonds the two women in a budding friendship, which foreshadows what happens later in the movie.

“American Woman” is not as suspenseful as it could have been, simply because the movie reveals in the very beginning that Jenny has been arrested. The film often moves at a slow pace in order to depict the isolation and secrecy experienced by the people who are hiding out from the law. There’s a tension-filed scene in the film where the owner of the farmhouse—a middle-aged man named Bob (played Matt Gordon)— unexpectedly shows up, and Jenny has to quickly make up a lie for why she is there. Later in the story, Juan threatens Jenny at gunpoint to force her to commit a serious crime, and it sets off a chain of events in the third act of the film.

“American Woman” is based on Susan Choi’s novel of the same name. The Jenny character was inspired by the real-life Wendy Yoshimura; Jenny’s boyfriend Michael Fisher is inspired by the real-life Willie Brandt (leader of the Revolutionary Army); and Juan and Yvonne are inspired by the real-life couple Bill and Emily Harris, the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army who hid out with Patty Hearst in rural New Jersey, with the help of Yoshimura.

Because “American Woman” is told from Jenny’s perspective, the other characters (except for Pauline, whom Jenny befriends) are written as somewhat one-dimensional. Even though the actors handle their roles capably, there’s a disconnect in how “American Woman” writer/director Semi Challas depicts the outlaws on screen: These characters are supposed to be firebrand radicals, but they’re written as somewhat dull and soulless. Viewers watching this movie will have a hard time believing that these outlaws are so passionate about their cause that they want to write a book about it, because the movie portrays them as lethargic and un-creative.

As the protagonist, Jenny is an introverted character, so the movie might make some people impatient to see more action taking place. This is not the kind of movie that will satisfy people who want everything to be wrapped up neatly in a tidy bow, like a crime procedural TV episode. Because the main characters in the movie are deeply unhappy people, and because we know that it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up to them, there are no real winners here.