Filmmaker Semi Chellas's directorial debut, American Woman, is a fictional account of the real-life woman who cared for heiress Patty Hearst after she was abducted. Chellas's movie is an adaptation of the Pulitzer-shortlisted novel by Susan Choi, who was inspired by the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst. Choi says, "For a lot of my life I've been very interested in radicalism and political activism. I was trying to write a book about pirates but I couldn't exactly figure out what pirates would do." She continues, "I thought they would probably kidnap someone so I went on a tangent of researching kidnappings and when I started reading about political kidnappings, I forgot about pirates."
Choi's book American Woman was published in 2003 and Chellas was one the author's first readers of her story. Since they were both passionate about the subject matter, a collaboration between the two made the filman extension of Choi's story. "The timeline in my story is when all these people dropped out of sight after the events in Los Angeles. All we know about what happened during that period is what a couple of them say--and they disagree with each other!" Choi adds, "That was an opportunity to step into the story with my imagination as a writer. There was this big hole in the middle of the reported story that very few people knew what to do with." Choi concludes, "That's where I tried to make a factionalized version of what happened during that lost year."
Jenny (Hong Chau) is a fugitive, wanted for the bombing of a draft officer in the 60s. She is, ironically, a pacifist, but in her objection to the Vietnam War she fell prey to violent activism which forced her into hiding. The war ends and Jenny wants to re-surface and enter society. Jenny finds work in an isolated area of New York's Hudson Valley as a housemaid in a country villa. Jenny keeps a low profile but has a difficult time listening to her boss scornfully address the radical anti-establishment group who kidnapped the daughter of a wealthy California family in 1975.
Jenny is recruited by a long-time friend from the former young radicals to join the last of the surviving group members who are involved in the recent kidnapping. Jenny's job is to guard the heiress, Pauline (Sarah Gadon), who says she is a true believer as a new radical. Jenny has her doubts about the façade, but she is more worried about the unstable radical members she is entangled with and the fact that she was brought into the mission under false pretenses. The FBI is closing in on the case and as the truth of Pauline's situation is revealed, Jenny must decide with whom and to what she will align herself.