Film Review – American Honey
The kids are on the road to nowhere in Andrea Arnold’s (Red Road, Fish Tank) mesmeric mediation on youth culture in the American heartland. It’s a film of neat contradictions; an insightful probe into the social and economic wastelands of modern America from a distinctly British filmmaker. Thin on plot, but running in at close to 3 hours, it features a cast of comprised mostly of non actors yet is littered with excellent performances. This could easily have buckled under the weight of it’s own ambitions, but works beautifully thanks to Arnold’s assured and immersive direction coupled with stunning cinematography from Robbie Ryan. It also boasts an outstanding lead turn from Sasha Lane in her first ever film role.
American Honey is an epic road movie which delves into the world of ‘mag kids’, disenfranchised adolescents from wayward backgrounds who travel the U.S making a living from selling magazine subscriptions door to door. The focal point of the story is Star (Lane), who yearns to break free from the shackles of her impoverished and abusive home life. When she encounters the charming Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his band of mag misfits in a Wal-Mart, she is instantly seduced by their spirited exuberance and joins them for a wild trip through the Midwestern United States. The film essentially charts Star’s journey as she drifts from place to place, indulges in reckless sexual encounters and generally finds her inner being against the striking backdrop of the American road.
Much like Richard Linklater’s grand opus Boyhood, Arnold’s film foregoes conventional narrative structure and finds dramatic impetus via its insightful character study and subtle, languidly paced structure. Lane brings a fiery naturalism to her performance which is complimented by a cracking turn from Shia LaBeouf. The relationship between Star and Jake is central to the story and the chemistry between the pair is palpable. LaBeouf sizzles, smartly riffing on his off-screen persona by bringing a charismatic wit undercut with a raging unpredictably to his character. Casting the seasoned actor among a group of mostly non professionals was a risky move but it is to his and Arnold’s credit that it pulls off in such a potent manner. Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) is another experienced name among the cast and does a fine job as Krystal, the hard edged leader of the pack. She is a vicious screen presence who gradually morphs into Star’s nemesis as the film progresses.
One of the most striking elements of the film is music. The diegetic use of songs on the soundtrack is a vital part of the narrative. Whether the thumping hip hop of E-40’s Choices (Yup) and I Like Tuh by Carnage or the mellow country tones of Bruce Springsteen’s Dream Baby Dream and Lady Antebellum’s title track, music is integral to the mood and tone of the film. These tracks also provide the connective tissue which binds the kids together. As they collectively break into song and gyrate to the sounds of their misspent youth, Arnold’s camera lingers in intimate close-up while the American landscape dissolves in the background. The overall effect is electrifying.
An absorbing, hypnotic cinematic experience which blends authentic realism with poetic imagery, American Honey explodes with the passion, urgency and defiance of youth. Confident, vital and brave work from a fearless director at the peak of her creative powers. One of the must see films of 2016.