Join American Honey on a sprawling, beautiful road trip across the dark underbelly of the USA
In ten years and just three films, Andrea Arnold has established herself as one of Britain’s most innovative and provocative auteurs, a social realist with an eye for poetry; Ken Loach crossed with Terrence Malick. Debuting with the stark Red Road, Arnold announced herself as one to watch with 2009’s superb Fish Tank, one of the best British films of the decade. Five years after her last film, 2011’s gorgeous but unsatisfying Wuthering Heights adaptation, Arnold has travelled to the US for American Honey, a messy, unconventional road trip that is as fascinating as it is relentless.
Newcomer Sasha Lane (discovered in a parking lot and cast on the spot) is Star, a poor Texan girl first seen scrabbling for food in a dumpster to feed her younger siblings. When she runs into the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his crew spilling out of a van, she’s offered the escape she desperately needs, quickly tearing off with them to Kansas City. Introduced to boss Krystal (Riley Keough), Star discovers their mission; selling magazine subscriptions to neighbourhoods across the country. Over 160 minutes, we hang out in the mag crew’s van as they dance, drink, fight, and do anything to make money. Out of her depths, Star clashes with her surroundings, falling in love with Jake before going it alone in a series of increasingly unnerving adventures.
Those who prefer their films tight and plot orientated should stay away from American Honey, for Arnold has made a loose, sprawling film with minimal story. It’s a testament to how well she understands these people and their environment that the film is never boring despite its epic length; using extended musical sequences and strange detours, American Honey is consistently unpredictable. Her vision for a look at America’s unseen underbelly is strikingly brought to life by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose use of academy ratio and handheld shots suggest both claustrophobia and freedom, all filmed under stunning natural light. It’s a pleasure to see so many beautiful sights.
Like Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, the cast of American Honey are mostly unknowns cast on the streets, great as the kind of vulnerable young people likely to be swept up by mag crews. While it’s nice to see Arielle Holmes (writer and star of Heaven Knows What) again, and Riley Keough is terrifically unlikable as the drunken mess of a leader, Shia LaBeouf is the professional who impresses the most. Eschewing his internet meme of a persona, he gives one of the performances of his career as the self-made man who will spin any lie he can to get subscriptions. Despite his fame and experience, he fits right alongside the unknowns excellently. It’s astonishing that Sasha Lane has never acted before, as she carries the entire film and never looks uncomfortable, her weary face hinting at years of sadness and frustration as she recklessly pursues any idea she has.
Built from improvisation and on-the-fly rewrites, it’s hardly surprising that the film occasionally feels aimless. While it never stops dynamically capturing both youth and poverty, American Honey loses its way towards the end, leading ultimately to an anti-climax; the dense nature of the story means Arnold never discovered how to finish her road trip. It’s a shame, as the preceding 150 minutes are hugely enjoyable. Aided by a very talented cast and one of the greatest cinematographers in the world, Arnold has created another staggering, frustrating, mesmerising, challenging film which reaffirms her place as one of Britain’s great filmmakers.
By Harry J. Ford
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