British writer and director Andrea Arnold has made a significant impact in world cinema with a series of social realist dramas set in her native country. In such a male-dominated industry, that a woman has been able to distinguish herself and be regarded as highly as Arnold is cause for celebration, and any film she makes must be approached with keener interest. That makes her American debut 'American Honey' even more exciting.
Star (Sasha Lane) is eighteen when she decides to leave her difficult family situation and join a gang of likewise disaffected youth crossing the country to sell magazine subscriptions. Charmed by the top seller Jake (Shia LeBeouf) but far too outspoken and independent, Star tries to find where she fits in a group of lost souls defiantly refusing to fit into the world around them.
Shot handheld and in a 4:3 format, 'American Honey' is a startlingly immediate piece of storytelling, presented in almost documentary style. All lighting is natural, all music comes from immediate sources and most of the actors are real teenagers found on the street. The concoction creates a whirlwind experience, the camera as wild and erratic as the kids it follows, capturing them as they indulge in every vice and literally collide with one another. Arnold has fashioned a narrative and circumstances where the young cast can blossom and be themselves, so much so that it's hard to judge most of their work as performative. 'American Honey' mixes lyrical beauty with a gritty filthiness, and while we've seen this impoverished, purgatorial side of American culture before, Arnold's position as an outsider and observer leads her to capture moments that often surprise you - even just the job itself of selling magazine subscriptions seems like a new concept. The screenplay also often pits these loud, obnoxious and highly street-wise youths against the clueless and intolerant wealthy of the Midwest, so that the contrast sticks out even further. It's also filled with countless magical musical moments, some of which end up being very emotionally potent. In many ways, watching 'American Honey' felt like watching the third part of 'The Decline of Western Civilisation' in how uncompromising Arnold is willing to be in showing the challenges, tragedies and ecstasies of these teenagers, and the performances she elicits out of this young, inexperienced cast is extraordinary.
The film itself is built around Star's story, and it's to the films advantage having such a fascinating protagonist and such a dynamic actor in the part. Sasha Lane commands the screen at every turn, finding a delicate balance between Star's fragility, defiance and determination. What sets her apart from the others in the team is the burning in her eyes, that sense that something more ambitious bubbling underneath. Sasha Lane is the great find of 'American Honey', and hopefully her obvious talent will be harnessed in the future. There might be some risk that the more experienced Shia LeBeouf would stick out against the rest of the cast, but to both his and Arnold's credit, he complements the fabric of the ensemble, providing a sturdy base for them to work from but intuitive enough to respond to their impulses.
For all its successes though, the summation of all of the film's extraordinary parts isn't quite a success. The major issue is its length - at 2 hours and 43 minutes, the film slightly overstays its welcome, but that has nothing to do with length. Arnold wisely allows moments to play out and develop (often with breathtaking results), but the repetitive nature of the narrative does become tedious as it goes on. There's an episodic quality to the film, but oftentimes characters or situations repeat themselves, lessening their impact the more they occur. The consequence is that the overall intention of the film becomes muddied, and while 'American Honey' would function perfectly well as a character study alone, the fact that it gets caught in a pattern that rarely shifts causes the film to lose energy and clarity. There's clearly method behind every move Arnold makes, much sometimes that method doesn't seem to have the clarity it should.
'American Honey' mixes lyrical beauty with a gritty filthiness, and while we've seen this impoverished, purgatorial side of American culture before, Arnold's position as an outsider and observer leads her to capture moments that often surprise...
That said, 'American Honey' is a major film, one that demonstrates just how commanding and important a filmmaker Andrea Arnold is. As an observer, she presents a view of America and its youth that feels immediate and potent, and even though the film looks incredible and moves with tremendous finesse, her greatest achievement here is her work with the cast, maintaining the honest in their performances without compromising the cinematic scope of the film. Even if I didn't find 'American Honey' a totally fulfilling experience, it certainly makes me all the more keen to find out more about this extraordinary filmmaker and her piercing examination of human nature.