In a time of new political upheaval, it’s somehow not surprising that a number of films are turning to the 1960s and 70s to take on the permutations of radical action. One of the more notorious cases was the Patty Hearst kidnapping in 1974, when Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an urban guerrilla group labeled as far-left terrorists. Hearst subsequently was supposed to have joined the SLA after a pattern of indoctrination, assault, and brainwashing. She participated in a bank robbery and was among three members who narrowly missed being killed a police raid on the SLA safe house.
American Woman is a fictionalized take on the aftermath of the raid (with names changed) told from the perspective of Jenny Shimada (Hong Chau), a radical forced underground after a bombing action. Jenny is living and working in an isolated upstate New York mansion owned by Dolly (Ellen Burstyn) when she’s approached by a publisher and fellow radical who offers her a deal: help the three fugitives of the SLA currently on the run house to write a book about their experience, and she’ll get enough money to either escape the country or get herself a good lawyer. Jenny agrees and becomes involved with the three remnants of the SLA: Juan (John Gallagher), his wife Yvonne (Lola Kirke), and Pauline (Sarah Gadon), the kidnapped daughter of a newspaper magnate who may or may not be there against her will.
There’s an oddness to American Woman that will likely flummox those without a working knowledge of the background of the Hearst kidnapping (made more complicated by the changing of names and conflating of identities that the film never fully explains – except perhaps out of concern for lawsuits). The question that drives the film, and Jenny, is where sympathies lie: are these revolutionary radicals beset by the U.S. government as they attempt to right wrongs, or homegrown terrorists? Is Pauline still there against her will, or does she truly believe in their cause? And where does Jenny draw the line in assisting people who have the potential to implicate her in their crimes?
The complex sympathies and psychologies of the characters occupy most of the film’s runtime, as they move around each other in an isolated cabin, evading suspicion from the locals and trying to write their book. The central relationship between Jenny and Pauline forms the final act of the film, but it develops early on, as the pair grow closer in alliance and further from Juan and Yvonne. Juan in particular is a domineering figure, waxing eloquent about the cause and the revolution while also exposing his basic toxicity – he has power over these women, and he expresses that power through verbal and physical violence and threat of violence.
Of the group, Jenny is the most obviously and potently radical: the daughter of a Conscientious Objector during World War II, her radicalism is also invested in her pacifism, and her awareness of their danger of discovery is the most realistic. Juan prefers to flex his muscles, practically willing his own capture and martyrdom, while Yvonne is represented as a somewhat flaky hanger-on. Pauline’s psychology is, of course, the most in question. She’s not there by choice – at least, she wasn’t initially – and her continued presence endangers the others while also being necessary. Where her loyalties lie and what her actual desires are, are among the questions the film explores, and the answers develop more around her relationship with Jenny than in her relationship to the others.
There’s an interesting undercurrent dealing with masculine toxicity, typified by Juan’s enforcement of his philosophical and political “rightness,” which is merely a blind for male authoritarianism, one dwelling in a hodge-podge of liberation pedagogy and Communist treatises. But the male dominance – or attempt at dominance – of female bodies and minds forms one of the film’s more trenchant investigations. The men are sparse – their psychologies are hardly elucidated and their motivations simplistic – but they still seek to control and dominate the female discourse. Juan, a straight white man, attempts to typify Jenny’s “Otherness” to her (mistaking her, at one point, as Vietnamese), informing her that her skin color and appearance is a “privilege.” The male federal agent who interviews Jenny browbeats her, tells her that her friends have given her up, and attempts to dig into her motivations without success. The other men are hardly seen, yet they shape the narrative: Pauline’s father, the men who kidnap and brainwash her, the police officers and agents sent after her. Yet, for all their attempts to comprehend and control female psychology, the men are also basically impotent. Jenny and Pauline put up barriers and subterfuges, declining to be understood, allowing their inherent Otherness and fluidity to mask their real desires, motivations, and intentions.
The difficulty of American Woman is in its lack of explication, which threatens to derail some of its arguments. Its strongest elements are its psychological investigation into the radicals and how those inform their ethical choices, and the excellent performances across the board. Chau provides a multilayered performance as a woman who is a true believer, but maybe not in the cause and methodology of those she’s thrown in with. Gadon is an at times haunted and at times frivolous figure, utterly inscrutable in her motives, apparently even to herself. The interplay between them is the film’s driving force and provides the most value in terms of its psychological and sociological arguments.
American Woman feels overly slight for the story its grappling with. A little more backstory to inform the psychological reality would have been helpful, and it will prove especially challenging to those unfamiliar with the upheavals of the 1970s and Hearst’s kidnapping. Director Semi Chellas is making her feature film debut here with definite verve and energy and a powerful psychological understanding of the women she examines. Much like its lead characters, American Woman is a fascinating, problematic, difficult-to-comprehend film. But when it works, it’s something special.
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