A pulsating, vivacious road movie with heart, depth and realism, American Honey is one of the very best films of the year.
The venture marks a rising ambitiousness for Andrea Arnold, director of the critically adored Fish Tank and 2011’s Wuthering Heights. Her newest film takes something gritty and intimate, and balloons it into an epic journey.
The film begins with Star (played by Sasha Lane), an 18 year-old girl living below the poverty line in Texas with an abusive father and two siblings. When she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) being thrown out of a supermarket check-out, he offers her a job travelling across America selling Magazine subscriptions. She snatches at the chance for escape and joins his enterprise: a noisy band of dysfunctional, marginalised young adults, led by the cold and manipulative Krystal (Riley Keough). Star and Jake develop a tumultuous love affair on their travels, all while navigating the poisonous machinations of American capitalism.
“When it wants to hit you, it aims for the gut and hits hard”
There are layers and depths to American Honey. The action is on the whole expertly naturalistic. And there is an effusive sense of life in watching the group of misfits cannon around from place to place, pissing around in the way that young people should. Behind the larking, however, Arnold paints a far darker picture. The magazine sellers are all considered ‘white trash’. Their lifestyle may be ostensibly rebellious and free-spirited, but the sombre truth American Honey depicts is one of disenfranchisement and systematic marginalisation. The failures, cruelties and deceptions of capitalism stream through the film, forming a perpetual undercurrent, even in the midst of the love story.
The actors are universally superb. LaBeouf gives a career-best performance as Jake, offering charisma, energy, frustration, and enough mystery to leave room for interpretation. Keough is wonderfully spiteful as Krystal, the closest the film has to a villain. Sasha Lane, however, is the greatest success story. Apparently spotted by Arnold while on a beach, Lane is immensely impressive in her first film role. Star is a fascinating, deeply sympathetic protagonist, warped by circumstance but defiantly good-natured.
The soundtrack is perfectly chosen; more than that, the music is absolutely essential to the film. Often, whole scenes are dedicated to the onscreen characters’ interaction with a song, with particularly highlights being Steve Earle’s ‘Copperhead Road’ at a redneck square dance, a touching use of Springsteen’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’, and a singalong to the Lady Antebellum track which lends the film its name. More pivotally, Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ is used twice, to great bombastic effect.
Shot in an unusual 4:3 aspect ratio, American Honey literally boxes you into its story. The effect is in essence a heightened closeness, a visual intimacy with the characters (particularly Star). When it wants to hit you, it aims for the gut and hits hard. The rest of the time, it lets you simply coast along, soaking in the characters, playing witness to 21st century Americana, in all its electric, corrupt glory.
Image: Andrea Arnold