This is a work of fiction, based on real events. It’s what American Woman wants you to know before the film has started – that what you’re about to see has a basis in fact but has been modified for our entertainment. Even more than that, modified to engage in a greater, more thoughtful commentary than the historical occurrence alone, the intention of author Susan Choi, who wrote the novel that the film is based off, and the film’s director Semi Chellas, in her feature-length debut.
In its barest bones, American Woman is about abducted heiress Patty Hearst’s infamous kidnapping-turned-indoctrination by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, and her flee from justice with two of her “comrades” in 1975 before eventual capture. But the film also shines a light on another real-life, but far more overlooked woman: Wendy Yoshimura (named “Jenny” in the film), an anti-war activist who did jail time for attempting to bomb several government draft offices and who assisted Patty and her comrades on their run from the law. The film excels in its performances from a solid lineup of talented actors, and its interrogation of Asian American treatment post-Vietnam, but its story fails to live up to its true-to-life basis and leaves a message that feels much more muddled than meaningful.
Jenny (Hong Chau) is working thanklessly as an in-home provider for a racist old woman (played by Ellen Burstyn), in the aftermath of her stint in jail for her participation in radical Vietnam protesting, when she’s contacted by a man from her past who asks for her assistance in helping three fugitives on the run from the law. Though reluctant, she sticks by them on the promise that she’ll help write their book and receive some desperately needed money in the process. The majority of the film takes place in the safe house for the protection of Juan (a wonderfully creepy John Gallagher Jr.), his free-spirited lover Yvonne (Lola Kirke), and the privileged “princess” they kidnapped and turned to their ranks, Patty Hearst stand-in Pauline (Sarah Gadon).
The film observes Jenny’s time with the fugitives, getting to know them as she helps them in the safe house and buys them food, trying to understand whether Pauline was truly persuaded to the ideals of the SLA, or if she’s still a victim. It attempts to find meaningful commentary in the contrast between anti-war activism and violent, guerrilla leftism. Juan is fairly unhinged and largely chauvinistic, and despite his devotion to Yvonne, he is anything if not intensely eerie, while Yvonne’s Bohemian sensibilities often tend to shutter under Juan’s misogyny and proclivity for aggression. Pauline, on the other hand, is a quiet, seemingly well-to-do girl who occasionally raises her voice or becomes mildly upset, but she is not offered enough of a personality for a character as potentially magnetic and multifaceted as one based off of a woman like Patty Hearst.
If the film maintains a strong hold on its audience, it’s largely due to the performances from its cast. Hong Chau excels as Jenny – resilient and hardened, not someone who can easily be pushed around by a man like Juan, but also deeply empathetic in her search for the trio’s questionable amount of humanity. Her previous actions are understandable, and her current ones are too; her ability to find common ground with people who exist in the same social/political grey area as she does, even with the pull of potential money by sticking around them. John Gallagher Jr. proves again that he can play disturbing bastards to an absolute T, and Lola Kirke shines as her irritating portrait of a violently-minded hippy. Sarah Gadon is serviceable and moderately compelling in her quiet performance, but the talents of the film’s cast are not quite enough to move past the lacklustre storytelling.
As someone not all that familiar with the Patty Hearst kidnapping of yesteryear, the film itself doesn’t do enough to pull you in with the absence of the historic crime itself. Most of American Woman takes place sitting around in the safe house, where aggression and passive aggression both thrive – but not a whole lot else does. The film eventually makes a Thelma and Louise kind of turn when Jenny and Pauline find themselves alone together on the run, but this potentially entertaining plotline doesn’t start nearly early enough in the film and is cut far too short, complemented by a bizarre romantic tension between the women that is neither acknowledged, justified, nor explored.
While compelling performances from dedicated actors lift the film up to be more than it might’ve been if cast differently, for those of us unacquainted with Patty Hearst’s legacy, the film doesn’t do nearly enough to pull us in. And even for those that are well-versed in this subject matter, it’s hard to feel like there is anything for them either. The film’s attempts to make meaningful commentary on what it means to be an American (Jenny’s status as the daughter of a Japanese internment camp prisoner and her treatment by those who still view Asian Americans through a Vietnam War lens) are eclipsed by how it ultimately portrays Hearst’s capture and subsequent post-fugitive fame – as if it doesn’t really know where it stands on them, and thus, it’s hard for us to know either.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs