Director: Andrea Arnold
Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Andrea Arnold has already proven herself adept at crafting gritty and honest social realism here in the UK, particularly drawing attention for her 2009 film Fish Tank. Following a willfully unusual (and sporadically inspiring) adaptation of Wuthering Heights, the indie extraordinaire has turned her attention, perhaps inevitably, to life stateside. The sense of authenticity Arnold nailed on home turf lapses somewhat during this gloriously ramshackle and episodic road movie, but it is more than made up for in the film’s hedonistic spirit, which carries it through nearly three sprawling hours.
Sasha Lane is the astonishing newcomer at the centre of everything. She plays dreadlocked 18-year-old Star who, at the beginning of the picture, is living a stereotypical existence on the poverty line. The film opens with her rifling through garbage for discarded food for the siblings she minds for her disinterested mother. A chance encounter with extroverted sociopath Jake (Shia LaBeouf) sees her abandon her home and family to make money on the road selling magazines door-to-door; a weird throwback to a now-hokey vision of the American dream.
Star joins a wagon of outcast youths. Though she claims money is her motive in order to fit in with the others, it’s clear from the get-go that Jake is the real prize for her. Modelling himself (jokingly?) on Donald Trump, Jake is all swagger, and LaBeouf imbues him with a devil-may-care attitude that’s all the more unnerving for its inconsistency. At times it seems like he models himself on movie heroes of the past (Martin Sheen in Badlands springs to mind), but Jake is not the ringleader of this motley crew, merely a well-trained and experienced passenger. Organisation of this group of juvenile capitalists belongs to Krystal (Riley Keough); bikini-clad and drop-dead serious. Jake’s loyalty to her (and vice-versa) is constantly in a state of conspicuous flux – something maddening for Star as she tries to figure them both out.
There is a lot that seems off about American Honey, with its on-the-nose depiction of Krystal’s targets. America’s rich are hypocritical Christians, BBQ playboys and opportunistic oil men. Yet one might argue that Arnold isn’t trying to create a realistic depiction of middle America at all. From the very beginning her film feels more like some sort of contemporary fairy tale. Star begins her journey running away from the big bad wolf, little children in tow. What’s more this view seems strangely fitting given the detached attitudes of her characters. These stray youths have grown up with reality TV and comic book culture and view the world around them through this lens. Their van playlist is chart hip-hop. Their little tribal rituals resemble warped variants of treats and punishments doled out on any number of identikit realty shows. They are on the fringes, trying to keep afloat by mimicking the lives of others as seen through the eye of American culture, albeit in their own marginalised way.
Energy buzzes throughout the film, which Arnold presents in boxy 4:3 aspect ratio (which feels like a rather bolshy, preemptive “fuck you” to anyone waiting to suggest making a film in America is in some way selling out). In that sense American Honey feels like a knowing love-letter to indie gems of days past such as Harmone Korine’s Spring Breakers or Larry Clarke’s kids. This could be seen, in a way, like her answer to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring… except Arnold’s film is far more alive and exuberant.
There’s a strangely apocalyptic feel to American Honey, as though it’s taking place during an end of days that nobody is aware of yet. Of course every generation feels as though it is in some way living in cataclysmic times, and this isn’t something vocalised by the young adults on screen, but there’s a devil-may-care recklessness at work here. On more than one occasion a character is asked what their dreams are. Both Star and Jake answer that nobody’s ever bothered to asked them before. These kids live as though there’s no tomorrow because nobody seems to care if they really have one.
All the while you sit there waiting for things to combust… but Arnold repeatedly refuses to let you off the hook. This imbues the film which a low-thrumming tension. Dramatic things happen, but they never quite hit the crescendo you’re anticipating. This can feel contrived at times, but it only amps up the uneasiness. Star and co. live their lives as though there are no consequences, and the world around them seems mystifyingly ready to perpetuate that belief. It leaves the viewer ready to flinch at sudden outbreaks of violence that repeatedly fail to come. Convention dictates that this bubble will burst eventually. Arnold counters that this isn’t really the point of her movie and that conventions are made to be broken.
What is the point then? It’s here that things come a little unglued, especially as American Honey seems unsure how to end. This isn’t a coming of age story in which a particular revelation affords it’s characters a new chapter in their existence. Life isn’t nearly so generous, and if anything Arnold’s film is little more than a snapshot, capturing the fin de siècle mood of our present times, despite the 21st century’s relative infancy. Perhaps that in itself is enough. Regardless, with any luck this will be a career making turn for young Sasha Lane, who thoroughly charms in one of the year’s most impressive lead performances. For what it’s worth it’s good to have LaBeouf back on our screens too. His recent selfie-stick inversion of the notion of celebrity carries across a cockiness to his screen presence that fits his wantonly irksome character.
American Honey may not be the best film of the year, but it feels like one of the most vibrant, messy and interesting. It’s garish and it’s contrived, but it carries these things off with a verve that shouldn’t be dismissed. Beautiful and dishevelled in equal measure, sometimes you don’t have to be the most graceful to be the most memorable person in the room. For all its wonky faults and meandering asides, this is one of my favourite movies of 2016.