Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Andrea Arnold
Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LeBeouf, Riley Keough.
British filmmaker Andrea Arnold has given us a sometimes bleak view on listless British youth with films like Fish Tank, but with her latest film she has turned her discerning view on America.
We are introduced to a motley crew of youngsters who travel around America’s midwest selling magazine subscriptions door to door. It is a scam of sorts, but the kids at least get to travel around and see some of the country, earn a little money and party hard. They get to keep 25% of whatever money they make, while the rest goes to their boss Krystal (Riley Keough) to pay for travel expenses and accommodation. A new recruit is the streetwise Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) who is trying to escape from a rather impoverished and hard background. She is picked up by the charismatic Jake (Shia LeBeouf), who tries to teach her the ropes.
American Honey is a road movie of sorts as it follows the nomadic lifestyle of these restless misfits, but it is also something of a unique variation on the coming of age tale full of youthful rebellion. The film superbly captures the ennui, the hedonistic lifestyle, youthful exuberance and sense of freedom of the wasted youth of contemporary America, but the material lacks the gritty edge and raw power of films like Larry Clarke’s Kids. But there is also a sadness and a tone of regret lying over the movie.
Arnold herself travelled with such a crew and her experiences lend a veracity to the material here. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, a regular collaborator with Ken Loach and who has shot some of Arnold’s previous films, brings a documentary like realism to the film. He uses handheld cameras to take us inside the bus itself which lends an intimacy to the film. It’s almost as if we are along for the ride as well. He also captures some great vistas of the American landscapes, and he captures some startling contrasts between the different environments that the itinerant crew pass through. He worked with natural light or available light, which further adds to the veneer of realism. His slick camerawork lends a glossy and warm impressive visual style to the material.
Arnold has cast the film mainly with a bunch of unknown non-professionals, some of whom were plucked off the street, discovered in car parks or construction sites. The youthful cast give largely unaffected, truthful and natural performances, almost as if they are playing themselves. In a strong debut Lane delivers an impressive performance as an emotional spitfire. She has attitude to spare and she holds our attention throughout. LaBeouf seems to be leaving behind the big budget mainstream movies like Transformers for more gritty and edgier independent productions like Nymphomaniac, etc, and he gives a more committed and nuanced performance here as Jake, the veteran salesman who takes Star under his wing. This is one of his better performances and he completely inhabits the grungy, heavily tattooed character. Jake and Star’s combustible and volatile relationship brings a bit of fire and passion to the material. Keough, who is Elvis Presley’s grand daughter, brings a tough and cynical edge to her performance as the hard nosed and almost amoral and controlling Krystal.
However at an overly generous 163 minutes the film is too long and sprawling in its structure, with moments of self-indulgence and a couple of extended raw sex scenes but it ultimately goes nowhere. Many of the subplots here actually go nowhere and some of the material is a little repetitive. Much of the film’s dialogue and situations seems to have been improvised. And not a lot of great urgency or interest happens.