“American Woman,” the first feature directed by “Mad Men” producer and writer Semi Chellas, is a fictionalized version of real events. A series of title cards set the stage. The year is 1975. “After multiple investigations, the President of the United States has been forced to resign.” “America’s disastrous involvement in the war in Vietnam is finally coming to an end.” “Some radicals still believe a revolution is necessary.”
Amid this time of political turmoil is Jenny Shimada (Hong Chau), a bomb maker who once blew up a draft board office. On the run, she is hiding out in upstate New York, working as a house keeper for a rich, conservative woman (Ellen Burstyn). She comes out of her semi-retirement when a publisher and old colleague-in-the-cause contacts her with a new mission. He wants her to look after three fugitive Symbionese Liberation Army members, Juan (John Gallagher), his wife Yvonne (Lola Kirke), and Pauline (Sarah Gadon), the kidnapped daughter of a newspaper magnate, as they write a book about their experiences. “You can’t just sit around waiting to die or be caught,” she tells them. “You have to start writing. Write the book, make the money. It’s the only way you’ll survive underground.” Jenny’s reward? Enough cash to leave the country.
The basics of the story are borrowed from the well documented kidnapping and radicalization, of American heiress Patty Hearst. Pauline is an obvious surrogate for Hearst while Jenny is a fictionalized version of Wendy Yoshimura, the woman who was with Patty Hearst when she was apprehended.
The names have been changed and some of the details, but this sharply written story isn’t a history lesson. It’s a study of people who have chosen a radical path in life. It showcases Jaun’s ideological rantings but also wonders aloud if Pauline truly converted to the cause or was simply trying to survive. “I don’t want to be an outlaw,” she says. “Outlaws always die at the end of the story.”
Add in themes on toxic masculinity—Juan may be a free thinker but his behavior toward women is anything but enlightened—sexuality, class, gender and race and you have film big on ideas while leaving the action scenes for other movies.
“American Woman” is a movie that values words. Some may find the storytelling a bit too low key for such an explosive subject, but the performances, particularly Chau, give the story layers. Chellas, who wrote the script in addition to directing, uses the main characters, Jenny and Pauline, as conduits to help us understand a complicated and slow-simmer story of survival.