OK, so wow. I can't remember the last time a film made me feel so unsettled and so mesmerized at the same time.
British director Andrea Arnold was probably the best filmmaker I had never heard of. But that changed yesterday when I watched her fourth feature, American Honey. Arnold has already won an Oscar for best short and the Jury Prize at Cannes for three of her films, including American Honey. This film was a revelation.
Star is eighteen and she's living a pretty bleak life. She's impressed by the charismatic freak Jake (an amazing Shia LaBeouf) in a parking lot where she is dumpster diving. The next day she has joined him on the road with a groups of kids who are hustling money by selling magazine subscriptions (OK, but I'm pretty sure no one is getting a magazine out of this deal). For me, the best performance is from Riley Keough as the slightly older Krystal, who runs the operation and is both languid and hard as nails. She is a weird and menacing entrepreneur and I could have watched her all day. Turns out she gets her charisma naturally—she's Elvis Presley's grand-daughter.
American Honey is long. It is, at times, dreamlike. It is uncomfortable. It features some explicit sexuality, which is disturbing but never gratuitous. It is ambitious and audacious but its audacity is subtle. It is shot in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio (almost a square). Basically, Arnold doesn't make safe art and her story is conceptualized and paced in a very unconventional way.
The hip hop that the kids listen and sing along to in the van as they travel is the main soundtrack. I can't remember much incidental music in other scenes. The music is important as rap is still such a central expression of youthful disaffection and rebellion. A LOT of the film is just the kids riding in the van, singing along. The dozen or so other kids on the van never actually become fleshed out as characters, which is brilliant and unexpected. I expected exposition about their backgrounds or drama between them but it didn't come. They are just a backdrop. A lot of what is happening is a lot of atmosphere and nothing, punctuated with moments of subtle trauma.
In one sense this is just another road trip film about seeing America. But the America that we see is bleak and terrifying. It's populated by strip malls, abandoned houses, fast food joints, trailer parks, creepy suburbs. I don't think it is terrifying to Star or the other kids, though. It's just what they expect. They are impressed by the tall buildings of Kansas City which means, wow, they've been traveling the country and yet they haven't seen a bigger downtown than this.
Never has life on the make, touring America, looked so un-slick and unglamorous. But not badass unglamorous, just dirty and sad. These characters are the underclass and it doesn't look like there is anywhere else for them to go. The kids drink and do drugs all day. They play-fight and moon people. They don't really care about anything. There is no more American Dream in American Honey, just nihilism.
This isn't a film about bad people, but most of the people in it are basically bad people. A glimmer of light comes from a truck driver who is actually a decent, hard-working guy, just trying to feed his family.
There are just a few things to quibble with. For the most part Arnold has such a light touch but occasionally she does get obvious or preachy. In one example, Star buys some groceries for family of kids whose mom is on drugs and we can tell she's flashing back to her own childhood.
It is interesting to note that Star (Sasha Lane), the heroine of the film, does not appear in the promotional photo above. Everything that happens is very much from her point of view. Lane is an absorbing actress and Star takes just enough of a journey to give us some hope.
Final showing is on October 12th 2016 12:30 PM at SFU Goldcorp Theatre.