Director: Andrea Arnold
Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LeBeouf, Riley Keough, Arielle Holmes
Rating: * * * ½ (out of 5)
A hypnotic state-of-the-underclass-nation address by a great British director who dares to delve into the underbelly of American society that its own filmmakers rarely probe: it’s surely hyperbolic to call American Honey the dread-headed stepchild of The Grapes of Wrath and Spring Breakers, but Andrea Arnold certainly feels like she’s shooting for something that all-encompassing and sensory-overloading here, in her tale of a feral pack of disadvantaged kids on the road selling magazine subscriptions. Arnold’s heroine Star (knockout debutant Sasha Lane, who recalls a mix of Lisa Bonet’s fragility and Michelle Rodriguez’s fight) is a clear transatlantic trailer trash cousin – though lacking even a trailer – to Fish Tank’s council estate Mia, complete with broken home life and dependent younger tots, yearning for a way out. She finds it when she escapes to join Jake (Shia LaBeouf, seizing the chance to channel his more outré leanings) and Krystal (Riley Keough)’s ragtag troupe of outcast; though the cost of independence days and the intoxication of young love comes at a steep price.
The first hour or so of American Honey is nigh on perfect. Arnold shows she’s instantly attuned to the rhythms and textures of the American road and country, her regular cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s sensual, hemmed-in Academy 4:3 ratio imagery regularly cutting away to nature’s small creatures and verdant beauty, even amid decaying urban sprawl. And conjuring up the bedraggled vitality of the van full of kids, high on EDM and rap tunes, drugs and themselves seems effortless. You instantly buy Star seizing on to Jake’s cocky charm and Krystal’s ice-queen businesswoman hauteur as the pathway to a life she desires, even if the audience is at least one step ahead in our awareness of the pitfalls Star either can’t, or won’t, see.
As the film spills and lurches into a third hour, however, with repetitive repercussions to Star and Jake’s erotic and abusive relationship, there’s the nagging feeling that Arnold has become intoxicated with her cast (the end credits sweetly lists everyone in front of and behind the camera as equals in “a film by”) to the point that the dead-end existence of Star’s endless road trip starts to become the experience of viewing the film itself. No complaints if Arnold rejects neat three-act structure and character arcs, but the weird combination of listlessness in a gruelling 162-minute running time and overwrought activity threatens to sap the primal energy and focus that made Red Road or Fish Tank so potent. Still, virtuoso, evocative shots and sudden stunning music cues keep swirling up – though the communal sing-along to Lady Antebellum’s title song seems more than a little fanciful – and those fully invested in Arnold’s epic will doubtless claim that its shaggy, bruising, cyclical nature reflects its subject. And even in a ragged, rambling road movie that chucks away its own map, there’s no doubting Andrea Arnold’s ability to take you somewhere new, and make you look at the world in a whole new light.