American Honey is award-winning writer/director Andrea Arnold’s fourth directorial feature and her first to explore the American landscape. Her other three features Fish Tank (2009), Red Road (2006) and Wuthering Heights (2011) were all British made and located films. Her in-road into the States has now won Arnold her third Cannes Jury Prize proving that her talents are not limited to grim British council estates or the Yorkshire moors.
American Honey is a sprawling dreamlike take on the American road movie and features a standout performance from newcomer Sasha Lane, a college student spotted by Arnold on a beach in California. She plays the films protagonist Star, an eighteen year old girl trapped in an abusive poverty-stricken household caring for her two half siblings while their negligent Mother spends her time in a depressing line dancing barn. It’s doesn’t take much to draw Star to Jake (Shia La Beouf) the charismatic leader of a troupe of teenagers who traverse the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions door to door and its love at first sight when she spots him and his posse in the local Kmart.
The aptly chosen Rhianna’s “We Found Love (in a hopeless place)” is pumped out as they cavort around the store; Jake jumping onto the counter as Star watches him coyly and their eyes meet. This scene could have been twee and corny in any other hands but Arnold elevates it to something surreal and sublimely romantic.
Realising that she has no one who will miss her, Star agrees to join the team and climbs on board the van and they set off towards their next destination. And so begins the adventure; Star is introduced to her new workmates while liquor and drugs are passed around and rap music blares in the background. They are bundled into crumby motels and their allowances doled out by the ruthless manager Krystal played by Riley Keogh who gets the characters acerbic sexiness down to a fine art. Dressed in stars and stripes bikini she looks like the perfect candidate for “Springbreakers, the later years”. Jake teaches Star the tricks of the trade but they end up getting stoned, not making any money and soon their relationship turns into a sexual one.
Aside from La Beouf – in an energetic if a little overcooked turn, Arielle Holmes (Heaven Knows What) who plays Pagan – a very disturbed girl obsessed with Darth Vader, and Keogh, the rest of the gang are non-actors. However Arnold has inspired raw and naturalistic performances from all of them allowing them to develop their own personalities throughout the filming. What is interesting is that what sounds like a very antiquated concept of selling magazines door to door is actually still a common activity as Arnold discovered in a New York Times articles upon which the premise of the film is based. During filming Arnold and her crew took an actual road trip staying in similar motels which explains the immediacy and realism of the performances.
The theme of escape, especially for desperate women living on the fringe of society is one that’s present in all of Arnold’s films. A similar character to Star, Kate Jarvis’ young protagonist Mia in Fish Tank yearns to escape her dismal life through dancing and in Wasp, Arnold’s Oscar winning short, a single Mother longs for a fairy-tale ending with her prince charming (the unlikely) Danny Dyer. Generally the characters discover that these fairy-tales don’t exist hence the grim and stark tone of Arnold’s films. As Star sets off on her journey of self-discovery, the scenes are drenched in an orange glow (just one example of the dazzling cinematography from Irish DOP Robbie Ryan, Arnold’s long term collaborator) but this changes about a third of the way through as the skies darken, hangover clings to the air and solvents are passed around instead of liquor. At times there is a treat that something very bad is going to happen as Star gets herself into some choice situations. She has oral sex for money with an oil rig worker, she runs away with a group of leery cowboys getting drunk on Mescal at their mansion and during a sales call she comes in contact with an over-dosed Mother of two young children. However, each time Arnold manages to overlay our dread with something hopeful and triumphant and so the film has a tone of optimism throughout; a clear departure in mood from her other films.
The earnest and naturalist direction, dazzling sensual cinematography and a convincing performance from the whole cast result in film full of beautifully orchestrated scenes and every moment is set to a perfect soundtrack. Arnold has chosen an eclectic mix of music as the backdrop to these wonderful sequences and in doing so elevates some trashy pop songs into something powerful and compelling Explicit pumping rap and hip-hop numbers such as Juicy J’s “Bounce it” sum up the crews hedonistic lifestyle, then Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” works perfectly as it plays on a truckers radio when Star hitches a lift and of course the aforementioned Kmart scene means I will never hear that Rhianna track in the same way again.
Yet whether all of these scenes come together into cohesive whole is debatable. Although perhaps they are not supposed to. The characters in the film are unfocused, going about life and taking everything as it comes. Unfortunately American Honey is overlong; the magazine crew’s many journeys start to feel repetitive during the last third of the film. Its unstructured, meandering style doesn’t support its almost three hour duration.
That one flaw aside it is a dazzling and at times overwhelming piece of art from Andrea Arnold.