Three-hour or so films are all the rage this year!
Andrea Arnold joined this club today with the premiere of her fourth feature and first-US set drama “American Honey”. Arnold is one of my favourite directors and I had loved “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” (“Wuthering Heights” slightly less so). “American Honey” is closest to “Fish Tank” narratively and stylistically but unfortunately lacks the intensity and naturalness that made “Fish Tank” great. What it does have is a similar entanglement between underprivileged teenager Star (Sasha Lane) and Jake (Shia Labeouf), an older man with a certain authority over her. That, and a lot of hip-hop.
Newcomer Sasha Lane stars as Star, an 18-year from an underprivileged family (the film opens with her dumpster diving for dinner along with her younger half-siblings) in rural Oklahoma who decides to escape her miserable existence by joining a vanful of similarly underprivileged (white-trash) teenagers driving towards Kansas selling magazine subscriptions door to door. It is a somewhat whimsical premise – when was the last time I subscribed to a paper magazine? – and the American location is new to Arnold, but just as well. Her outsider’s look into young impoverished white Midwest America is powerfully insightful, clinically precise but never condescending. This is the America that Hollywood shuns like an infectious disease, an underbelly of ugliness and poverty that is never going to be ‘cool’, no matter how much hip-hop you throw at it. It is a semi-literate, malnourished, third-world space and Star’s dream is to grow up and out of it. Thus she seizes the haphazard job that passes her by – she is literally spotted on the roadside by the travelling crew’s recruiter Jake (Shia Labeouf) while trying to hitch a ride (first she needs to dispose of her young step-siblings by taking them to their mother who is too busy dancing to country music to really care).
The travelling magazine crew take to Star, calling her the New Girl, and gradually, among dinghy motels, long stretches of highway to the beat of inspirational (they actually listen to hip-hop before going off on the daily sales rounds) music, solidarity blossoms. The teenage cast made of non-professional actors that exude the destitution of the characters is at first daunting. Star is initially withdrawn and wary, maybe because she is of mixed race and everyone else is white – by the way, it is interesting how little is made of the racial difference with hardly a slur in earshot, not even when Star crashes a wealthy white, middle-aged male cowboy barbecue in a manicured ranch – but the crew ends up endearing and ultimately poignant. The lead, newcomer Sasha Lane is less unequivocally convincing than the rest (there is a hilarious, perfect performance by Riley Keough as the bitchy, blazé, money-obsessed manager), likely because her role is the most complex and demanding. However, Lane is aso the reason that parts of the film that feel overdrawn and extraneous are still watchable – it is a safe bet that had Arnold cast a less gorgeous-looking, less young, less charming lead, that would not be the case. The onscreen chemistry between Star and Jake is realistically rendered (no butterflies or fluff) and Labeouf’s perfect dosage of sleaze and sincerity is exceptional (so far this is my pick for the male acting prize).
What doesn’t work as well here are the lyrical jaunts and the repetitiveness of some sequences; where in “Fish Tank” the horse motive symbolised freedom and escape, the random appearance of a bear here feels contrived and gimmicky, while the use of the bee motive lacks in both subtlety and elan. Arnold clearly revels in filming her young protagonists dancing to the hip-hop beat inside the van, and fair enough, but past the second hour this rehashing starts to feel tiresome and trite (granted, she could have had no inkling of the number of three-hour Cannes entries this year).
There is also a probably deliberate lack of a startlingly dramatic twist. On several occasions the film builds up an ominous atmosphere only to defuse it -just when you think Star will get beaten/raped/sliced up by a trucker, a redneck or the gang of wealthy middle-aged barbecuers, it turns out fine and right when it looks like she has decided to drown on a whim, she was just taking a dip.
While Andrea Arnold is a Cannes darling and no doubt an insightful, sensitive, emotionally invested auteur, this year my money is on Maren Ade’s middle-class romp.