By Angelo Muredda
TV-to-feature transitions are always a fraught jump for writers of sparkling, monologue-heavy prose, and Mad Men writer Semi Chellas’ American Woman is no exception. Faring a bit better than Chellas’ former boss Matthew Weiner’s dispiriting Are You Here but falling well short of the intimacy and idiosyncrasy of David Chase’s Not Fade Away—with which it shares a retrospective glance on American cultural history and an interest in the limits of youthful rebellion—American Woman is a mostly sleepy affair. At best, it’s a competent, zeitgeist-chasing adaptation of Susan Choi’s fictionalized story about Patty Hearst and Wendy Yoshimura, here rechristened Jenny (Hong Chau), an underground activist and former bombmaker tasked with looking after the neo-Patty while she’s in hiding.
Sarah Gadon makes for an effectively inscrutable Hearst stand-in as wealthy kidnapee-turned-radical Pauline, and there’s a lulling musicality and puckishness to her exchanges with Chau, who plays Jenny as someone weary and unfazed by her charge’s moneyed charms but attracted to her vulnerability all the same. There are inklings of a biting story here about class, gender, and race — the radicals’ resident man-in-charge, Juan (an unconvincingly tough John Gallagher Jr.), can only fathom Jenny’s place in the movement in terms of what her race signifies to him as a woke colonizer—but the film’s attempts to invoke these discourses through the lens of the 1970s feel thin and phony. And while Chellas has well-proven herself as a dramaturge, the filmmaking here is generally flat, characterized by desaturated colours, functional compositions, and a weak framing device that all contribute toward making the film feel like a pilot rather than a standalone feature.