Patricia Hearst and her underground minder inspire a drama about 1970s radicals from a ‘Mad Men’ writer.

There is a fascinating story at the heart of American Woman, based on Susan Choi’s audacious 2003 Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel of the same name. A first feature written and directed by Semi Chellas, a writer on Mad Men, the drama is inspired by Patricia Hearst’s time spent underground in 1974 and ’75, after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and joined their cause. The novel and film’s smart, skewed approach to the subject of 1970s radicalism is not to focus on the heiress, but to see those events and America’s political crises of the period through the eyes of the person charged with taking care of the Hearst character in hiding.

The American woman of the title is Jenny (Hong Chau, who played Matt Damon’s housekeeper in Downsizing), a fictional variation on Wendy Yoshimura, who was for a time Hearst’s minder. Jenny is less radical and more thoughtful than her charges, and potentially a rich heroine. But she is not quite fully formed as a character and is unfortunately surrounded by three other characters who range from flat to outlandishly caricatured. The film is lively and detailed enough so it is never boring, but it never takes off dramatically or realizes its intriguing possibilities either.

Most of the pic is a long flashback framed by unnecessary scenes of Jenny in prison, being questioned by an FBI agent. The story truly begins with her living in a large old house working for Miss Dolly, an entitled, rich old woman. Throughout the story, Chau is extremely good at capturing the tension, fear and questioning behind Jenny’s calm facade. And in just a few scenes as Miss Dolly, Ellen Burstyn creates a character capable of surprising us.

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