2. American Honey. Andrea Arnold. UK/USA.
Describing any of Andrea Arnold’s four feature films on paper is a tough sell. You’ve got a grimy adaptation of Wuthering Heights and a kitchen sink drama about a girl who wants to dance her way out of the slums (Fish Tank). Her feature debut, Red Road, is perhaps more compelling on paper (a surveillance operator becomes obsessed with a man she sees on the screen) since it’s the only directorial offering she didn’t also write. Fittingly, it’s also her only film that doesn’t fully come together. So a short description of her latest triumph, American Honey, wouldn’t do the film justice. Like most of the films that have left the deepest impressions on me, Arnold’s films are felt and experienced, and American Honey is no different.
As the title suggests, American Honey takes the director, already an Oscar winner for her incredible short film Wasp, away from England and into the American South, as teenage Star (Sasha Lane) leaves her humble life behind to join a traveling group of misfit youth who sell magazines door-to-door. She’s led by a rat-tailed Pied Piper with an eyebrow piercing (played with magnetic intensity by Shia LaBeouf in easily the best performance of his career) into a world of motel-dwelling and van-living, all under the watchful eye of a confederate flag bikini-donning “madam” of sorts named Krystal (a magnificent Riley Keough, who is the real standout of the film).
At just under three hours long, American Honey feels like a journey in itself. Through a series of different towns, none of which are ever explicitly identified, and a number of unusual encounters with the respective townsfolk, Arnold uses repetition and length to her benefit to offset the viewer, to mirror their experience to Star’s journey. In a lot of ways, American Honey shares a lot in common with Fish Tank, beyond both of them winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Arnold plucked the stars of both films out of obscurity and pulled riveting performances out of them under high demands. Both characters are onscreen at all times; the camera hovers around them from start to finish. A similarly complicated dynamic emerges in both films between our teenage protagonists, the maternal figures, and the dashing male leads. Both Star and Fish Tank‘s Mia (Katie Jarvis) are self-sufficient, aggressive young women who act a lot tougher than they really are, but in their respective films, they function in drastically different ways.
Fish Tank is an intimate character study, whereas American Honey is not. Fish Tank is a glimpse into Mia’s world; in American Honey, Star is just our tour guide. We don’t get to know her the way we do with Mia. American Honey is an expansive, sprawling tapestry of Americana, which maybe could only be brought to life through the eyes of a foreigner. And through Arnold’s eyes, the trip is nothing less than dazzling.
On no less than five occasions over the course of American Honey, Arnold works the sort of hold-your-breath filmmaking magic that I’ve become accustomed to in her oeuvre. Literally and figuratively, American Honey dances dangerously close to the fire at all times. It’s mostly a testament to Arnold’s ability to defy expectations that she can successfully douse her films with an ever-present threat of disaster. With the unusual 4:3 screen aspect ratio she has always used, you’re drawn into her films so intimately that you can feel how close you are to the bottom completely dropping out.
At every turn, American Honey seems headed toward devastation and ruin. You arrive into the film with certain expectations of how this shady, unstable business practice is going to end up for Star, who acts on her impulses and seizes the first opportunity she can to run away from her hometown. What makes American Honey so magnificent is that it never meets your weary apprehensions. It dances so close to that fire, but it never burns down. These choices turn what could have been an alarmingly didactic and cruel endeavor into an unexpectedly hopeful and auspicious journey of discovery, instead of defeat.
As an aside, a friend of mine suggested an interesting theory that, for its gorgeous grittiness and realism (Riley Keough is the only person in the film who appears to be playing an actual character instead of a version of themselves), Star actually functions like a mythical figure, touched by a sort of Christian grace. She’s an enigmatic and tenacious figure with a deep connection to animals and nature, and this grace forms a protective shield around her.
Whether it’s her breathtaking vision, her ability to inspire excellent performances from actors both professional and non, her capacity for turning thin ideas into audacious expressions, her attention to detail, her knack for defying expectations, or her penchant for leaving you feeling like the wind has been knocked out of you (every single time), American Honey solidifies Andrea Arnold’s position as one of the most compelling voices in cinema today.
American Honey premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and was released by A24 Films (the most exciting distributor currently in the United States) this past fall. It’s currently available on Blu-ray and streaming on demand.
With: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal B. Ice, Will Patton, Daran Shinn, Sam Williamson, Bruce Gregory