American Honey, high-risk high-reward film-making

Loose-limbed, atmospheric and wandering, American Honey is social realist director Andrea Arnold’s first US feature.  Lauded for her Academy Award winning short Wasp and Jury Prize winning Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold has once again produced an indelible millennial masterpiece.  This time, her format is long-form and of a picaresque persuasion: following the rambling, directionless journey of a group of poor American teenagers, selling magazines door to door.

At 162 minutes running time, it drifts from place to place, scene to scene, and at times slows to near listlessness.  But there’s something honey-like about it, a slow flowing, amber-hued authenticity that means you hardly notice.  Loosely inspired by a 2007 New York Times article by Ian Urbina on an horrific, neo-Dickensian outfit of magazine subscription peddlers, Arnold researched American Honey for years by following travelling ‘Mag Crews’ around the country and populated the film with non-professional actors she met along the way.  There’s always a risk when it comes to using untested actors, but Arnold’s commitment to authenticity has paid off in a big way.

american-honey2The film starts with Star (Sasha Lane – who Arnold discovered on the beach during spring break) digging through a dumpster with two young children (whose relationship to Star is not made clear), searching for salvageable food.  A van, filled with boisterous youths passes and Star stares wistfully after it – her longing for a different life palpable.  Moments later, she is recruited by Jake (Shia Le Boeuf) in the Walmart car park and after leaving her dumpster-diving charges at a bar with their mother, she hits the road with the itinerant gang. The youths travel around the Midwest in a cramped van, sleeping five or six to a room in dirty motels, selling magazine subscriptions door to door and stealing what they can.  They are kept in check by boss Krystal (Riley Keough), an uncompromising taskmaster who takes 80% of what the kids make and uses humiliation to punish low earners.

Jake is instructed to train Star, giving opportunity for the expression of their simmering sexual tension.  The story follows Star’s and Jake’s relationship, Krystal’s mounting ire and in Star’s risky mini adventures, which seem to always involve her getting into a car with strange men.  But plot isn’t what drives this movie and each event follows the one before with a sense of no-consequences nihilism.  Nothing really happens, and nothing is going to—this is more of a character study if you had to try and pin something conventional on it.  In between door knocking, hitching rides and youthful bacchanals, Star begins to take shape and Lane is exquisite in her rendering of a young woman coming of age.  Le Boeuf’s performance is his best in years, his wildness magnetic, but it is Lane who brings the film together.

american-honey3Despite being shot in Arnold’s typical ratio of 4×3, the film doesn’t feel small. Indeed, the boxy frame creates a sense of connection between the viewer and the actors, placing the audience right there in the van with them and keeping the focus tightly on the characters even amid rolling mid-west scenery.  It also gives the film something of an Instagram quality, which combined with Robbie Ryan’s drifting camera work; dappled light and lens flare make it a visual masterpiece. There’s lots of sky, lots of fields, lots of close ups of skin.

Held together by the loosest of narratives, American Honey is full of achingly specific details and unexpected tenderness.  The film offers a wide and earthy look at American socio-economics and class, but offers no commentary—an ‘it is what it is’ attitude shared by the teenage sellers.

The film is guided by an internal rhythm and signposted with visual and aural couplings: a mention of American Honey at the start and a sing-along to it two hours later; Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s We Found Love book-ending the drama; and a remark about Kansas City being where superman lives and later the appearance of a dog dressed as superman.  In other hands, these might feel on the nose, but with Arnold’s guidance, we are left with an impression of the cyclical nature of life: same thing, different day.

American Honey is a beautiful, humid rumination on social inequality, growing up, and 21st century hedonism.  Underscored by a seemingly random iTunes soundtrack and full of affectless sexual and emotional tension, unfixed characters and no consequences, the film is honest in its search for, and failure to find, meaning.

American Honey comes out November 3.

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