Starring Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon. Now streaming across on-demand and digital platforms
When people think of the Patty Hearst affair, they picture the kidnapped heiress herself, sporting a beret and machine gun. But behind the scenes there was another, lesser-known player: Wendy Yoshimura, an antiwar activist and Symbionese Liberation Army member who was hiding with Hearst when they were finally caught as fugitives.
Yoshimura and her final months with Hearst are the starting point for this meditative, moodily shot effort written and directed by Semi Chellas (of TV’s Mad Men and The Romanoffs). The film is fictional, inspired by the real events and based on Susan Choi’s novel of the same name; Yoshimura is called Jenny Shimada here and played by Hong Chau, who made such a buzzily out-of-the-box impression in Alexander Payne’s eclectic Downsizing.
Quiet and stern, Jenny is the enigmatic centre of American Woman, a pacifist who used to make bombs, as the film reveals early on. Her story is told in flashbacks from an FBI interrogation; “I’d sure like to know why you girls are so goddamned mad,” the agent patronizingly tells her. The movie goes on to hint that, in 1975, there was a lot for any woman, especially a woman of colour, to be royally pissed off about.
Jenny is an ex-radical in hiding, working as a caretaker to a wealthy old woman (a biting Ellen Burstyn)—a scenario that establishes the film’s themes of class and race—when she’s recruited by activists again. She’s hired to keep watch over the rural Upstate New York hideout where Hearst stand-in Pauline (Sarah Gadon) and her two volatile captors, Juan and Yvonne (John Gallagher Jr. and Lola Kirke), are holed up after a police shootout has killed the rest of their group.
A connection builds between the two women, Jenny somehow drawn to Pauline’s vulnerability and empathetic to what appears to be her trauma-induced fear, Pauline to her watcher’s gentleness, especially compared to the abuse from Juan—the angry anticapitalist who calls his captive “princess”.
Time stands still, and Chellas gives these scenes a dreamlike feel, leaves rustling, crickets chirping, all enhanced with poetic lensing by Vancouver cinematographer Greg Middleton.
When the pair break from Juan and Yvonne, the tension dissipates, and the movie shifts its tone dramatically into that of a more romanticized road movie, Pauline and Jenny speeding their way west.
The overall mood is a world away from Paul Schrader’s dark descent into brainwashing and captivity, 1988’s Patty Hearst. American Woman is more interested in the post-’60s political and cultural forces that led to radical acts, presented here in hushed, meditative tones.
In the end, Gadon’s Pauline remains a cipher, shellshocked, unstable, but coy. Chau, the core of the movie, fares better. Yoshimura had a fascinating life that led to her activism—especially having been born in a Japanese-American internment camp. That’s only mentioned briefly here, but Chau is strong enough to bring a compelling new perspective to this bizarre chapter of history—and to the entire idea of the identity of the “American woman”.