Sunday 27 November 2016

American Honey by Andrea Arnold

I couldn’t get this film out of my head, and I recommend it to you most highly. It's a sort of road movie — across the underbelly of America. It tells the story of Star, superbly played by newcomer Sasha Lane, who is living a terrible and marginalised existence salvaging food from dumpsters; fending off sexual creepswhen she meets the Mag Crew.

The Mag Crew is a bunch of teenagers in a van who go from city to city selling magazine subscriptions. They are outcasts and misfits and they are barely scraping a living, but they party hard, mostly in motel parking lots, and have a sense of family.

Star joins them because she is smitten with their leader Jake, played by Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf is a divisive actor, but I've had a lot of time for him since he appeared in Charlie Countryman. On the evidence of that film and American Honey, he has the courage to appear in unusual and interesting indie pictures instead of sticking to lucrative blockbusters.

The movie is written and directed by the Brit Andrea Arnold. Her last film was Jane Eyre, and had I known that I probably would have steered clear of American Honey; I really didn't like Wuthering Heights, but it would have been a tragedy to miss this movie. It really is outstanding.

As with her earlier pictures, Arnold has shot this in 4:3 ratio instead of widescreen. 4:3 is a square image like vintage Hollywood movies or old TV sets. "The reason I really like it," says Arnold, "is because I'm always telling stories about one person, and it's the perfect frame for that... it doesn't give a lot of space on either side."

American Honey is a little reminiscent of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, though it's considerably more gentle. It's still full of sex and drugs, with the occasional harrowing moment and violent confrontation. And the viewer is constantly in a state of dread about what might happen to Star. 

But perhaps the most notable thing about it is its concern with nature. The camera is always seeking out birds or insects. The Mag Crew have a pet squirrel and abduct a dog. And there’s an amazing scene where Star, at her lowest ebb, receives a hulking, ursine blessing from a brown bear. Also, he doesn’t kill her, which is nice.

Health warning: American Honey is 165 minutes long. Which I found offputting in prospect, and I would have said is about twice the natural length for a movie of this kind

I was grousing about this to the guy tearing tickets at the cinema as I went in. He said, "Yeah, but you won't notice the time. It's such a great movie." True.

(Image credits: The two white posters are from Pinterest. The sky blue poster is from Imp Awards. Sasha Lane is from Film Experience. Sasha Lane holding the slate from Ion Cinema (nice pun).)

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