reviewed by naomi keenan o'shea
Andrea Arnold’s latest film American Honey is a vibrant and exhilarating tour de force. Arnold lends her unique directorial vision to the portrayal of a contemporary youth culture hovering on the fringes of American society. With a first time performance from Sasha Lane as the film’s runaway protagonist Star, Arnold yet again delivers her acute cinematic touch to the depiction of displaced and vulnerable young women that can be seen throughout her body of work. With an electrifyingly honest and energised performance from Lane, bolstered by the support of an exceptionally strong cast (many of whom are also first timers to the screen), American Honey resonates profoundly in the viewer the mythical freedom of youth, while still retaining the darker tropes that characterise Arnold’s cinematic canon.
Set in the contemporary American Midwest, American Honey tells the story of Star’s experience on the road with a hotchpotch group of youths, managed by a Machiavellian style head honcho named Krystal (Riley Keough). First drawn to the group through her flirtations with Jake (Shia LaBeouf is expertly cast as the charismatic and cocky leader of the wayward teens) Star trades in her difficult home life, where she takes care of her neglected younger siblings, for the opportunity to travel with the nomadic group as they sell magazines door to door throughout America. Arnold reorientates her sociopolitical engagement from the UK to the impoverished midwest, offering acute (but never overbearing) insights into the socio-economic gulf between the magazine-selling teens and their suburban clientele. A particularly resonant scene sees Star knocking on the door of a home not dissimilar to the one she so recently left behind, allowing for her depth of character to emerge in the interactions she has with the young children she finds there. American Honey delicately negotiates scenes of sheer spectacle and energy- recurring shots of the group dancing in motel parking lots and around spitting bonfires- with scenes of real pathos, allowing for a narrative that is simultaneously uplifting and disturbing.
American Honey is nothing short of visually and aurally masterful. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan(a long time collaborator on Arnold’s work) operates within a 4×3 frame which accommodates the visual synergy between the film’s recurring extreme close-ups and the expansiveness of its long shots that linger upon shifting landscapes and changing skylines. Arnold’s ritual focus upon close-ups - of insects on blades of grass or windowpanes, the details of tattoos on various body parts, smoke escaping parted lips, beads of water on skin and hair - are all indicative of her acute appreciation for the minutiae that define her characters’ worlds and identities, which are continually figured against the greater picture of Star’s ever-changing surroundings. As always, Arnold insists upon the dynamic cinematic image, with the camera in constant motion and the characters continually moving throughout the frame, reflecting the tumultuous and exhilarating nature of the groups’ fractured lifestyle. This is in turn formally mirrored in the film’s episodic structure, which is expertly woven around a powerfully orotund soundtrack. Combined with the beauty of the film’s cinematic vision, the soundtrack offers a truly sensuous and engulfing portrayal of the groups’ collaborative existence as a band of outsiders and castaways.
Falling just short of three hours in length, American Honey successfully eschews any tedium associated with an excessive film run time. In fact, when the film does end, it is a shock to find yourself ejected from the whirlwind vibrancy and dynamism of such a beautifully and tragically realised world. Arnold has achieved something spectacular, something so corporeal and raw in its energy and honesty, that it leaves you wanting more. American Honey celebrates itself.