This is British director Andrea Arnold’s Wizard of Oz, taking the form of a vibrant and epic journey across America that sees a young woman named Star (impressive newcomer Sasha Lane) attempt to find a place to call home. It’s a rite of passage road trip that is incredible to behold, utterly transportive and packed full of wickedly alluring choreography and tunes. Like its protagonist, the film feels a little directionless at times, but there’s so much pleasure to be taken in Star’s unguarded encounters, which all contribute to the personal growth of this once brutalised soul.
When 18-year-old Star spots a rowdy group of teens in a supermarket singing and dancing along to Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ she’s instantly intrigued. She meets Jake (powerful work from a deliciously gross Shia LaBeouf, sporting a ratty braid and bum-bag), who asks her to come along to Kansas City and join a crew of door-to-door magazine sellers. She’s hooked in by his cocky attitude and soon starts falling for his charms, because anything seems brighter than her present state of affairs – living in an abusive home as a stand-in mother for two kids who aren’t her own.
Along the way she visits wealthy homes with emerald green lawns and meets friendly cowboys with wild horses. She sings along to Bruce Springsteen with a trucker, and learns to take risks and let loose. Her relationship with Jake is portrayed as a heady romance, with the two exploring one another in sun-dappled fields and convertible cars. There’s a grimy ambience to it all which recalls the films of Harmony Korine and Larry Clark, and the music videos of Melina Matsoukas. The group of youths she travels with on the open road are a mix of pot-smoking, vodka-swilling lost boys and girls who work hard and party hard, and the performances are suitably naturalistic. They are ruled over by the straight-talking Krystal (Riley Keough), whose capitalist agenda encourages them to exploit whoever they can to get what they need.
The pumping, almost continual blast of music is turned up to the max and includes songs from Lady Antebellum, E-40, Kevin Gates and Fetty Wap; accompanied by the evocative cinematography of Robbie Ryan (who worked on Arnold’s three previous features – Red Road, Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights), this conspires to create a spine-tingling and uplifting tale of untamed youth and rebellion. This is passionate and ambitious filmmaking from Arnold that recalls the desperate but hopeful lyrics of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’, one song that doesn’t appear on the rousing, sprawling soundtrack.
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Cannes Review: Andrea Arnold’s ‘American Honey’ Is A Glorious, Golden Ode To Youth
Youth is not exactly wasted on the young, even when the young are as wasted as they frequently are in Andrea Arnold‘s nectar-hued, poignant, yet propulsive “American Honey.” It’s more that youth is impossible to experience when you’re young — it is an unexamined state that has no frame of reference to anything else. So in real life, you can’t ever really “feel young,” but you can at the movies. Especially if that movie is “American Honey,” into which it feels like Arnold distills the very essence of youth, and along with a never-better Robbie Ryan as her cinematographer, serves up golden image after golden image as though dispensing amber shots of hard liquor. It will make you drunk, it will make you giddy, it will make you high, and at 2 hours 43 minutes, it will eventually make you tired, but even with the hangover, “American Honey” is a glorious mezcal bender. Eat the worm.
Popping onto the screen in a fabulous 4:3 aspect ratio which already kicks against the impulse to track the open spaces of middle America in widescreen vistas and godlike panoramas, from the first scene you are plunged headfirst into Arnold’s immediate style, and allied entirely to the point of view of her star, the aptly named Star, played by the film’s revelation, Sasha Lane. In messy dreadlocks and a cheap tank top with a couple of kids almost certainly not her own in tow, 18-year-old Star is digging through a dumpster and scores a chicken still in its packaging. Then, after a few abortive attempts to get the three of them home by hitchhiking, a white minivan stuffed with people, and a pair of mooning buttocks in the back window, drives by. Star locks eyes momentarily with the guy in the passenger seat, and when it pulls into a nearby supermarket shopping lot, she goes over to engineer a prickly introduction in which the attraction is clearly reciprocated.
The guy is Jake (Shia LaBeouf, reminding us all, for the most part, that he’s a good actor despite sporting the most appalling hairdo) and he suggests Star join the boisterous group who, it turns out, sells magazine subscriptions door-to-door in what’s basically a borderline pyramid-scheme scam. They work under the watchful eye of their manager Krystal (Riley Keough, whose performance here coming so soon after her astonishing turn Starz’ “The Girlfriend Experience” is similarly shark-eyed, monetary and almost animalistically alpha-female) whose relationship with Jake gives the film its very loose love-triangle stakes. The outfit essentially operates like a little tribe, or a cult, with its own rituals and traditions, bonded together fairly ferociously but less by affection than by the shared acknowledgment that none of them have anyone else.
Indeed, outside of our three main stars, the rest of the troupe, aside from Pagan, played by Arielle Holmes (“Heaven Knows What“), about whom we get a little personal detail, aren’t particularly differentiated aside from their hairstyles and body types. Largely played by first-timers, they are there more for the choral vibe of authentic youthfulness they collectively give off rather than for individual characterization.
American Honey 2Arnold’s eye for the miraculously skewering detail is as sharp as ever and the Robert Frank-style Americana of this road trip allows dozens of lovely touches: shots of wasps rescued from drowning in swimming pools, peeing dogs in Superman capes, and curling faded photographs tacked onto squalid walls. And in other ways she seems to have developed, too, perfecting the kinetic, dynamic cutting that she displayed in her terrific “Fish Tank,” that can be adapted for the purposes of tension, as Star gets herself into situations that could easily turn not my type, or of celebration, as in the film’s many exuberant dancing, party and music scenes.
And the music is something else again — a great soundtrack composed largely of songs many of us wouldn’t be caught dead listening to under normal circumstances, Arnold finds frequent use for everything from Southern rap to Bruce Springsteen to Rihanna (in fact, this is the second recent outstanding anthemic film about young womanhood, after Céline Sciamma‘s “Girlhood,” to capture the alchemical effect of Ri-ri’s music on disenfranchised millennial females). And if occasionally the soundtrack lands a little on the nose (Jake and Star literally find love in a chain supermarket — a hopeless place if ever there was one), the clever way the sound is designed compensates, with massive party tracks cutting out abruptly on an edit to give a sense of next-day hangover, and most unexpectedly, at the film’s lovely close when Star has a private moment of baptism during a lakeside party, and after all the noise and clamor she is reborn in quiet.
It is indulgent in its length and relative plotlessness, though there’s no point at which the bravado of Arnold’s filmmaking, Lane’s riveting performance or Ryan’s stunning Polaroid-shaped lensing ever flag. And there is a slight issue with LaBeouf, so good in the early stages, especially when being used as a pawn in the tacit territorial battle between Krystal and Star, in that it’s jarring when he gets to be all Shia LaBeouf-y and beat up a living room, then roar away on a motorcycle.
But for the most part, Arnold has a tight grip on what she wants her loose-limbed film to be: a thrumming blood-rush firsthand experience of youth, of aimlessness and love, with the top down and the radio blaring and the certainty that you are so indestructible and so eternal that you don’t even need to hold onto this moment because everything is always going to be just like this. And that’s the loveliness of the transient but heady “American Honey”: It captures the experience of being young in a way that you don’t get to experience when you are young. Ephemerality is both the beauty and the tragedy of youth — it’s what gives it meaning but it’s also what snatches meaning away. With Arnold’s film, we don’t get to hang on the feeling forever, but we do get to trap it like a wasp under a glass, and to examine it a moment before setting it free.
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Newcomer Sasha Lane stars alongside Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough in Andrea Arnold's first U.S. feature about a teen runaway who takes up with a traveling youth crew.
In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller used the defeat of a door-to-door peddler to shatter the defining myth of a country where opportunity, material gain and personal fulfillment are there for the taking. But it's doubtful the playwright could ever have imagined the traveling sales crew in American Honey, a mob of teenage drifters suspended between emptiness and defiant resilience, selling something no one wants. Brit writer-director Andrea Arnold's first U.S. feature is an immersive road movie that's bound to be divisive — some will embrace it as an audacious freeform subculture odyssey, laced with moments of lyricism, while others will shrug at its baggy running time and paucity of narrative incident. Either way though, it's definitely something to be seen.
The film evinces a kinship with the disaffected youth portraits of Gus Van Sant, like Elephant and Paranoid Park, and the darker brand of generational nihilism purveyed by Harmony Korine; its raw sexual content, wild energy and moments of reckless crime specifically recall Spring Breakers. The latter title's U.S. distributor, A24, also has domestic on American Honey, which will require creative marketing to overcome the challenges of its non-story and overextended 162-minute running time.
We learn very little about 18-year-old Star (luminous newcomer Sasha Lane) before she leaves behind her skeevy father, parks the two small half-siblings in her care with the mother that clearly doesn't want them and gets the on earth out of Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her exit package is a group of youths who go town-to-town, state-to-state in a van selling magazine subscriptions.
That might not seem the most promising avenue of escape, but Arnold makes it appear almost magical through Star's eyes, full of instant possibilities for romance and adventure. The group's top sales guy, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), first catches her eye, and then she looks on enchanted as they disturb the peace of a sleepy strip-mall supermarket, dancing to "We Found Love" (best use of a Rihanna song since Celine Sciamma's Girlhood).
The crew is managed by Krystal (Riley Keough, a tangy delight), a porn star manqué with a rockin' body encased in a series of divinely trashy outfits by costumer Alex Bovaird. A money-minded mean girl with little time for pleasantries, Krystal sizes up Star with a mixture of sisterly approval and rivalrous suspicion that gets nastier as the new recruit's blossoming relationship with Jake starts hurting his sales figures.
That's pretty much it in terms of plot, and it's disappointing in a film of such unfettered structure and length that Arnold shows so little interest in exploring other connections within the group.
Only two characters stand out — a gonzo surfer-dude type named Corey (McCaul Lombardi), who regularly whips out his penis for kicks; and the sweetly unhinged Pagan (Arielle Holmes, from the Safdie Brothers' Heaven Knows What), who sleepwalks and obsesses about Star Wars. The sense of an anarchic, hard-partying surrogate family is clear as they swill vodka during 8 a.m. meetings or spark up a bowl in the van. But although they obviously care for one another, they remain a somewhat interchangeable bunch, a mass of background color swirling around Star.
Lane is certainly a magnetic screen presence, layering a hard edge of bruised experience behind the softness of her character's dreamy, hopeful gaze. And her chemistry is smoking with LaBeouf, who has found an ideal vehicle here to harness his edge-of-insanity unpredictability. But their tentative romance, and Star's justified concern as to how serious he is about her, never becomes a full-throttle dramatic engine.
Instead, the film works best as a poignant character study, observing Star as she settles into her independence and figures out who she wants to be, framed by a vast physical landscape that stretches socioeconomically from privileged wealth to squalid poverty. There's a wonderful intimacy in the way Arnold examines young women in her films. That's true here of scenes like one with an oilfield worker who pays Star $1,000 for some pretty miserable sex. Or another in which she makes a sales call on a dirt-poor house, and responds with empathy to the kids, all but abandoned by their junkie mother, with nothing in the refrigerator but a bottle of Mountain Dew.
Shot in the boxy Academy ratio with stinging clarity and richly sensual colors by Arnold's regular cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the movie hugs so closely to its central character that any distance between the filmmaker and her subject is erased. As with all of Arnold's films, the best of which arguably are her Oscar-winning 2003 short, Wasp, and her grimly beautiful 2009 feature, Fish Tank, there's not a trace of sentimentality, condescension or moralizing.
Much of the movie unfolds in confined spaces like the van, truck compartments or cheap motel rooms, but even open-air, walking-and-talking scenes are viewed through a tightly focused lens. Startling images of nature punctuate the film, providing an expressive motif that invites comparison to the work of Terrence Malick — from bugs, birds and bees to dogs, cows and horses, a turtle, a sugar glider and a bear that clearly hasn't seen The Revenant.
The use of music is exhilarating throughout, from the rap and country-rock songs played in the van to Bruce Springsteen's "Dream Baby Dream," which becomes a shared wish during a warm encounter between Star and a kind family-man trucker. Particularly haunting use is made of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's "Careless Love," while the Lady Antebellum song that gives the movie its title becomes a celebration of female freedom. And ultimately, despite its many somber reflections on the road from an uneasy past to an uncertain future, that's the chief takeaway from this rambling but unexpectedly penetrating film.
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Andrea Arnold's fourth feature, and her first set in the U.S., is a ravishing blend of feminine picaresque and iTunes musical.
Mere minutes into “American Honey,” her scrappy, sprawling astonishment of a fourth feature, Andrea Arnold hits the audience with a song choice almost too perfect to work. As a girl’s gaze meets a boy’s across the packed aisles of a Midwestern Walmart, the euphoric EDM throb of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s 2011 smash “We Found Love” hijacks the busy soundscape, setting a love story emphatically in motion by the time he hops up to dance on the checkout counter. “We found love in a hopeless place,” the song’s chorus ecstatically declares, over and over, as well it might — does it get more hopeless than Walmart, after all? It’s a gesture so brazenly big and romantically literal that it can’t help but have your heart, and it’s such an early, ebullient cinematic climax that Arnold dares repeat it two hours later, cranking up the song again in a more fraught, nervous context. Like much of what the director risks in “American Honey,” she shouldn’t get away with it, but most defiantly does.
Of course Arnold would choose this song. Be it in the grimy towers of an Essex council estate, the wind-whipped moors of Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire or, now, the truck stops and fleapit motels lining America’s highways, finding love in a hopeless place — or at least a bit of rapture amid the rubble — is something of a recurring theme in the British director’s work, though she’s never previously committed to it in quite such sensual, saturated fashion. Part dreamy millennial picaresque, part distorted tapestry of Americana and part exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical, “Honey” daringly commits only to the loosest of narratives across its luxurious 162-minute running time. Yet it’s constantly, engrossingly active, spinning and sparking and exploding in cycles like a Fourth of July Catherine wheel: If Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” hadn’t already claimed cinematic possession of Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Arnold could aptly have thrown that one onto her playlist too.
After the stripped-to-bone minimalism of her remarkable but divisive “Wuthering Heights” adaptation — pointedly rejected by Cannes selectors after her first two features each scooped a Jury Prize at the festival — one can hardly blame Arnold for treating herself to this kind of sunburnt, open-armed excess. But while the Brit’s first U.S.-set feature has a jangly rhythm all its own, it’s not a complete creative departure either. There are aesthetic flourishes, character dynamics and nature-based motifs here that date as far back as her Oscar-winning 2003 short “Wasp.” Meanwhile, in her thorny but nakedly vulnerable 18-year-old protagonist Star (played by camera-magnetizing newcomer Sasha Lane), Arnold has found a transatlantic twin to Mia Williams, the chipped-enamel heroine of 2009’s “Fish Tank.”
Like Mia, Star has a long life ahead of her but not a whole lot to look forward to. With her parents out of the picture for reasons that require some assembly on the audience’s part, she’s left pretty much on her own to provide for two pre-teen charges, foraging for spoiled food in supermarket dumpsters as she dreams modestly of a trailer to call her own. (Arnold, whose unerring facility with very young child performers is repeatedly proven here, paints this glum home life in achingly specific strokes: One kid’s befuddled attack on a shrink-wrapped chicken is a short film on its own.) When she meets a gaggle of similarly disaffected young misfits at the aforementioned Walmart, she’s immediately drawn to their smirkingly charismatic leader Jake (Shia LaBeouf, sporting his own ratty braid and facial piercings), a kind of enigmatic Pied Piper for the douche-bro generation.
The kids, it turns out, are jointly traveling across the Midwest, eking out a living by selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions — a scheme the film openly acknowledges is antiquated, a nod to a world shifting ever-so-slightly faster than this staid belt of middle America. (Hey, it’s not like they’re hawking Good Housekeeping in Manhattan.) Dumping the children on a dubious guardian, Star rashly jumps on board, acting on her volatile erotic chemistry with Jake and finding an immediate enemy in the collective’s terrifying manager Krystal (a splendid Riley Keough), a spray-tanned devil in a Confederate-flag bikini. From cream-colored Stetsons to star-spangled freight trains to the very casting of Keough (granddaughter of Elvis Presley) herself, Arnold doesn’t shy away from the most blatant of ‘Murican iconography, compressing it all into a kind of heightened, top-heavy American dream on the verge of collapse.
That opening act is about as structured as things get in “American Honey,” as Star tumbles headlong into a routine of on-the-cheap hedonism, petty and not-so-petty crime, and heated sexual sparring with Jake. Just as she learns to accept life on a freewheeling, moment-to-moment basis, so must the audience, tracing the character’s momentous, often painful emotional growth spurts amid the raucous repetition of the gang’s lifestyle.
While exhilarating as sensory spectacle, “American Honey” perhaps works most satisfyingly as a femme-driven corrective to Harmony Korine’s comparable but inferior “Spring Breakers,” a notional girl-power exercise that muted its female characters’ perspective in favor of James Franco’s gonzo mentor figure. That’s not an error Arnold makes. Despite the apparent stunt casting of LaBeouf — who easily delivers his best performance here, bleeding the eccentricities of his own celebrity persona into the character to fascinating, oddly moving effect — the film never slips away from Star’s evolving point of view, or Lane’s electric presence.
Even viewers who find this traveling circus of cheap thrills and cheaper booze wearying would be hard pressed to deny the iridescent vitality with which it has been put on screen. Every technical contribution here, from Joe Bini’s wild, whirligig editing to the relentlessly switching, swarming soundtrack — covering every contemporary pop base from glassily futuristic hip-hop to the warm cornbread country of Lady Antebellum’s title-inspiring ballad, beautifully deployed here as an unabashedly sentimental singalong — serves Arnold’s vision with blazing commitment to the cause. Not for nothing are the closing credits uniquely presented as an alphabetical list of names, democratically merging actors and gaffers alike: If ever a film seemed like an amorphous team effort, it’s this one.
Still, one name does deserve celebration above all others, and that’s Arnold’s steadfast cinematographer Robbie Ryan — a veritable sorcerer of light who conjures one astounding image after another in the director’s signature Academy ratio. The elegantly curtailed proportions of the frame have the added effect of making all these youthful misadventures play, appropriately enough, like Instagram in motion. Not that most cameraphone snappers could find the jewel tones that Ryan excavates in dusty gas-station signage, or negotiate the breathtaking balance between fleshy, flame-colored contours and inky shadow that he finds in the film’s twilit love scenes — moments where the camera appears quite literally to be on fire. Yellow diamonds in the light, indeed.
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American Honey review: Andrea Arnold mislays map on sweet, indelible roadtrip
A firmer hand with the plot – and with Shia LaBeouf – might have benefitted this admirably loose-limbed and atmospheric immersion into a little-seen world
ndrea Arnold is the brilliant British film-maker who created two modern gems in the social-realist tradition in the form of Red Road and Fish Tank, and in my view a near-masterpiece in the form of her much-misunderstood Wuthering Heights, a work of such radical simplicity and raw experience it actually seemed to predate the literary work.
Now in American Honey she has created a long, often intriguing and humidly atmospheric film which sometimes dwindles into listlessness. It’s a road movie in the un-accented style of Gus Van Sant – particularly his Elephant and Paranoid Park. The drifting camera shots directed straight up into a blue sky, bisected occasionally with telegraph poles, are very similar to Van Sant’s Elephant. There’s something of Larry Clark or Harmony Korine in the featureless, affectless approach to sexuality.
It’s a film which drifts onward in search for an epiphany which doesn’t quite materialise. It is indulgent, and features a scenery-chewing, furniture-smashing performance from Shia LaBoeuf.
Yet there is much that is valuable in the film: a sense of mood and space, interesting ideas and a tense triangular dynamic between its chief characters. The title is taken from Lady Antebellum’s country single which is collectively, sentimentally sung by the cast towards the end of the film – atypical, to say the least, as most of music they’ve been listening to has been hardcore rap.
LaBoeuf plays Jake, who manages an itinerant “magazine crew” – dirt-poor twentysomethings travelling America in a cramped van, sleeping five or six to a room in scuzzy hotels and selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door to people who might sign up out of pity or just to get them to go away. There’s also money to be made pilfering from the homes of people who let them in to do their sales pitch.
One day Jake recruits 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) from outside a supermarket: she leaves her two kids with her mother (ambiguously, she may simply be their older sister) dumping them with her at a line-dancing club.
All the salespeople get to ride in the van, with their luggage in a U-Haul trailer, but Jake travels in a sports car with his hard-faced girlfriend Krystal (Riley Keough) who is the real boss: managing the cash, paying the bills, and coldly humiliating people who aren’t making their sales targets. Jake is teamed up with Star for their sales blitz and is clearly infatuated with her: he is hugely conceited, telling clients that he intends to study “politics” in college and affects a pair of dark trousers with braces that according one onlooker make him look like Donald Trump. But now his own sales figures are suffering, due to his infatuation with Star – to Krystal’s increasing rage.
The emotional tension and possible political satire and social commentary are all suspended in a great deal of sunlit ambient moodscaping and no particular place to go. There is a robbery, and Star at one stage agrees to sex for a lot of money. But there is no conventionally structured cause-and-effect consequence to this. The bus just keeps on rolling and no cops show up. There is fighting, drinking, partying. New people get on the bus and some are left behind. Insofar as the narrative comes to a point it is with a humiliating status-demotion for Jake.
Perhaps there is something naive about this - but there is also a kind of audacity and fidelity to experience. Sometimes life is not built like a house with three acts like three storeys. It is more like a river which flows onward and it seems to me that it is this flow which Arnold is trying to imitate.
The flaws are obvious: it is long, with some improv-ish dialogue, and there is that over-cooked, showy performance from Shia LaBeouf who needed stricter direction. Yet it has style and its image and feel stayed with me.
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America’s wide open spaces have rarely felt as claustrophobic as in American Honey, a US road trip largely undertaken in a box-like white van, and shot in tight Academy ratio format. The story of a young woman looking for escape, only to find herself on the proverbial Road to Nowhere, has an appropriately enclosed, tense feel in Andrea Arnold’s ambitious, assertively experimental travelogue, shot over 56 days in several American states.
Visually the film is terrific, Robbie Ryan’s restlessly shifting, often sun-soaked photography vividly snapping up snatched moments of industrial drabness and bucolic bliss
As a story about a young woman trying to find a better life, the film is of a piece with Arnold’s UK working-class tale, the appropriately named Fish Tank (2009), but it represents a significant departure from her earlier work in being so open-ended, seemingly improvisatory, and in overall ambition. But while American Honey exudes ample energy, this episodic piece doesn’t muster much narrative drive over its daunting running time of two and three quarter hours. There’s probably a stronger, tighter film in here, but fair game at least to Arnold in her commitment to following the winding back roads of filmic experiment rather than the well-mapped highway of storytelling.
The film begins in a small US town where we see dreadlocked 19-year-old Star (Lane) foraging for jettisoned foodstuffs in a supermarket skip. When a white van carrying a rowdy group of youth passes through, Star finds herself flirting with their charismatic older leader Jake (LaBeouf), who offers her a job. Before long, she’s joined his crew, who travel round the Midwest, selling magazine subscriptions. There’s clearly a great sense of camaraderie to be had with this bunch of motley youth, crammed together in the van to a permanent soundtrack of hip-hop and R&B. But Star soon comes to realize that the terms of engagement are tough.
The show is really run by the hard-bitten Krystal (Riley Keough), who’s suspicious of Star as a youthful sexual rival, and who has Jake completely in her thrall. Then there’s the fact that the selling is done by lying outrageously to gullible customers, whom Jake meanwhile robs. And Krystal makes it clear that rich and dirt poor alike are fair game for ruthless milking. The use of rootless innocents to do the work suggests that the hippie dream, of which this generation bears the faintest traces, is long dead: freedom and rebellion have become just masks for the profit motive at its most merciless.
American Honey has a certain quasi-documentary dimension, insofar as the action – shot in sequence in as informal a manner as possible, road trip style - appears to represent the process of the film being improvised from location to location. The story is based on a 2007 New York Times article by Ian Urbina, about just such sales crews, but there’s little sense that Arnold wants to give us a journalistic exposé. We never see any of the other kids do their selling work – indeed, they seem so raucously anarchic that it’s hard to imagine what their methods might be. And Arnold isn’t really interested in the other characters. Of the 15 young people – largely unknown, apart from Arrielle Holmes, who appeared in the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What – few are really differentiated as individuals, apart from a Darth Vader-fixated girl named Rebel.
Instead, the film very much focuses on Star, played by bright discovery Sasha Lane as wide-eyed but hardly innocent, open to all the possibilities of life on the road – existential and sexual – but sufficiently sharp and initiative filled to stand out from the crowd. LaBeouf’s Jake never quite comes into focus as an ambivalent bad boy, but Keough (from TV’s The Girlfriend Experiment) gives Krystal a steely, cynical edge, and it’s unfortunate that the narrative isn’t more precisely developed to give this figure her deserved time in the spotlight.
Visually, however, the film is terrific, Robbie Ryan’s restlessly shifting, often sun-soaked photography vividly snapping up snatched moments of industrial drabness and bucolic bliss alike, shifting from imposing landscapes to extreme close-ups of nature and somewhat channelling the Southern low-life romanticism of photographer William Eggleston (as well as the youth culture imagery, filmed and still, of Larry Clark).
The film’s disabused take on American culture sometimes comes into sharp focus – notably near the end, in a contrast between Star’s sad features and the exuberant romance of Lady Antebellum’s titular country song. This would have made a good point to turn off the track, but a campfire coda, leaving Star’s fate undecided, suggests that the road could go on forever – or just that Arnold hasn’t quite found her ending.
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European directors have often faltered when crossing the Atlantic. Billy Wilder and Wim Wenders found things to say where Paolo Sorrentino could not. American Honey is certainly the former. Based on a 2007 article from the New York Times, it’s a backwater American road movie directed by an Englishwoman, Andrea Arnold, and shot by Irishman Robbie Ryan. We spot a few cowboys and gas stations and even the Grand Canyon, but it’s nothing to do with any of that. It’s about America (duh) but it’s also about friendship and money and learning to look out for yourself, and that primal connection young people make between music and identity. It’s visually astonishing and often devastating, too. This might be the freshest film about young people in America since Larry Clark’s Kids from 1995.
Arnold opens in shallow-focus Academy ratio, the concentrated square shaped format she and Ryan employed on Wuthering Heights. We meet Star (newly discovered Sasha Lane) as she goes dumpster diving with some kids who we soon learn are not her own. We’ll follow her every step for the rest of the movie. She runs into a rag-tag group of adolescents dancing to Rihanna in a local mall. Shot in close-up, she locks eyes with their ringleader, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), in an intimate meet-cute. He convinces her to come along for the ride.
The group is a motley crew of runaways from across the states, connected by a lust for adventure or money or whatever freedom the road still offers. Star might be Dorothy here (a friend even references Oz when they pass through Kansas), but perhaps she’s more like Oliver, with Riley Keough’s hard-nosed ringleader Krystal as Fagan and Shia LaBeouf’s Jake as her Bill Sikes. The gang cruise the motorways in an 11-seater van, stopping off from town to town to work a magazine-subscription racket. Whatever they earn goes towards food and gas with the least-profitable members forced to physically fight it out. This is all in good humor, seemingly, any bad vibes cleansed through music and parties. Star shouts, “I’m darn America!” when a deal goes her way but stumbles in toxic waste a few scenes after. There’s the impression that business is good in Arnold’s America, but something’s not right with the water.
Star falls hard for Jake and, now a 21st-century Bonnie & Clyde, their ensuing affair threatens to derail the good times. The chemistry between Lane and LaBeouf is electric. It’s as if their hormones are crackling on the celluloid. Many of LaBeouf’s detractors (and there are many) won’t like to admit it, perhaps not even the man himself, but the actor has found an odd niche playing manipulators and scumbags. Dressed like a door-to-door salesmen but built and inked like a professional wrestler, through Jake he exudes an intensity that, to this point, he had yet to manage. The pair fool around with enough legitimacy to even leave question marks over one hot and heavy moment — here, a rare nervous jerk in Ryan’s camerawork seems starkly telling.
Jake has a temper, of course, à la Stanley Kowalski, but Star’s no Blanche. Arnold often leaves her heroine in situations that the movies have taught us to expect the worst from — left alone with right-wing cowboys, long-haul truck drivers, and, in the film’s most daring sequence, a worker from an oil well. These set pieces seem to test Star’s naivety and, too, the viewer’s perceived notions of exactly who’s in control. We’re never asked to pity the young woman. To the contrary, in the few moments when we’re asked to worry about her, she proves, as Jake falters, to be the most headstrong.
Offering an antithesis to his work on I, Daniel Blake that was first seen a couple of days ago, Ryan (who’s shot each of Arnold films to date) provides a wealth of imagery to gorge on. His close-ups are breathtaking, but it’s in the small details — a dog in a superman costume; gummy bears stuck to a car window; a French fry covered in flies — that he finds his Americana. Joe Bini edits it beautifully. Rihanna, Jeremih, and Lady Antebellum provide the soundtrack to these character’s lives.
Is Andrea Arnold her generation’s greatest director of young people? It would seem so. She might not know how to end things here, but then it’s not the type of film that has you running for the door. And if none of that floats your boat, recent heroine-addict-turned-indie-breakout Arielle Holmes — so wonderful in Heaven Knows What — appears as a spaced-out girl named Pagan who’s obsessed with Star Wars. Radical.
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During one of many vehicular epiphanies in Andrea Arnold’s sprawling, loosely structured fourth feature, Star (Sasha Lane), a troubled young woman hanging with a wild crew, bellows out: “I feel like I’m darn America”. It’s not clear if the f-word is meant in its verbal or adjectival sense, but I like to think that it’s the latter. It requires some chutzpah to give your film a two-word title beginning with “American”. This indicates you are making a statement about an entire continent. Arnold’s film has already proved divisive at Cannes, but, to this critic’s eyes, it lives up to its mighty ambitions. Derived from Long Days, Slim Rewards, a 2007 article in the New York Times, the picture details the adventures of a team flogging magazine subscriptions from door to door. (I imagine the repeated line “Do people still read magazines?’ was not in the original piece.)
We first meet Star, a spirited Texan, doing her best to care for her layabout mother’s other two children in trying circumstances. Life changes when she encounters Jake (Shia LaBeouf, annoying on purpose) and his crew of subscription floggers creating mayhem in the local supermarket. He talks her through the logistics of the operation — hustle, sell, hand over most of the loot — and she eventually decides to throw her lot in with the gang. They climb into a people carrier and make for Kansas City,
That really is all the plot you’re going to get over the next two hours and 40 minutes. Working with a small crew, Arnold and her team travelled about the country in much the same manner as their subjects. Jake and Star get together. There are tensions with the young woman (Riley Keough) who runs the operation. But the film is essentially a random, picaresque odyssey that could end after 30 minutes or after yet another two hours.
Arnold — whose first two features, Red Road and Fish Tank, both played in competition here — is bringing us back to the Lost America films of the late 1960s. But the film is even looser than Easy Rider and even more anarchic than Two Lane Blacktop. American Honey earns its titular adjective by wiring itself right in to America’s Great Chaos and allowing the juice to flood its ventricles. They encounter rich cowboys in huge hats. They meet prim Christians in Pleasant Valley. Eventually, they encounter people who are even poorer than they are. Along the way almost everybody does something he or she shouldn’t, but, as is always the case in an Arnold joint, the film neither judges nor punishes any supposed misdeeds.
What better metaphor could there be for America than an operation that sells a product nobody wants? The magazines don’t even seem to have names. There is stuff on boats, trucks and girls. But you won’t get Time or The New York Review of Books. The only thing that matters is the sale (however mendacious) and, for all his annoying pointy edges, LaBeouf convinces as a man who would irritate you into buying 12 issues of Generic Gun Periodical. Sasha Lane, making her debut, is astonishingly good in the title role. She can do brassy aggression, but also manages to soften into compassion very effectively. Keough convinces us she’s more than just Elvis’s granddaughter in a charismatic turn as the third vertex in the love triangle. Aside from Pagan (Arielle Holmes), a nerdy Star Wars fan, nobody else among the civilians gets to assert much of a personality.
What really makes the film sing is its gorgeous, original texture. Our own Robbie Ryan, shooting in Arnold’s preferred narrow Academy ratio, offers dynamic, glowing images that capture each destination with startling concision. Joe Bini, a regular collaborator with Werner Herzog, brings zipped-up energy to the editing. Any five-minute stretch could be extracted to form a worthwhile short film. All those limbs suggest Harmony Korine or Larry Clark, but the gaze is notably less lascivious.
For all that, it is not hard to understand why many have turned against American Honey. Seek traditional notions such as story arc and character development elsewhere. There are at least two too many scenes of the gang singing along to rap while driving through endless prairies. Even a modicum of order would be welcome.
What it most suggests is a big, sprawling triple album by a really good band. There are many troughs and peaks. But the bagginess is very much part of the aesthetic. After all, America is an uneven nation.