Title: American Honey
Country: USA, UK
Director/Writer: Andrea Arnold
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Kenneth Kory Tucker
Shawna Rae Moseley
Johnny Pierce II
UK auteur Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature, after her atmospherically muted, but attention-ruffled transposition of WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011), AMERICAN HONEY retreads a more adept ground as in FISH TANK (2009), chronicling a young girl’s growing pain and ecstasy but not in UK, but in America.
Stoutly persevering with her hand-held modus operandi, shot with 35mm in 1.37:1 Aspect Ratio, the film conceivably ratchets down the shaky restlessness which almost renders WUTHERING HEIGHTS unfathomable and maddening, and the camera closely foregrounds around our heroine Star (Lane), a 18-year-old girl, who, in the opening sequences, are minding two kids while they are scavenging in the garage bins outside a supermarket for food, the narrative never reveal to us the relationships between Star and them, which knowingly leaves it to our imagination. (from more plausible siblings to the rank dark corner of depravity, could Star be the mother of those two, with that creepy groping figure in their house as the biological father?)
Star needs a vent to get out of her benighted fix, so she decidedly joins up a constellation of magazine-peddling youngsters, lead by a charismatic Jake (LeBeouf), whom she has met in the supermarket, but the real boss is Krystal (Keough), a hard-bitten girl who is quite frosty towards the newcomer (which cancels out the possibility of a cult entrapment since Krystal is purely profit-oriented), but the rest takes her Star instantly. Through their journey from Muskogee to Kansas, until South Dakota, it is a well-coordinated travelogue-cum-vanpool-karaoke, patently charting the discrepancy that divides the ordinary lives in America through Star’s eyes, covering from upper middle-class WASP, posh cowboys, well-heeled oil workers, hard-working juggernaut drivers to hardscrabble ethnic drug addicts, whilst its eclectic soundtrack ranges from hipster pop anthems (the mag-group’s theme song is Rihanna’s WE FOUND LOVE), trap-rap urban snippets (Rae Sremmurd’s NO TYPE) to folksy country tunes (the titular song from Lady Antebellum).
The crew is a ragbag of pubescent misfits: jock, ghoul, dork, geek, LGBTQ all included, an innocuous bunch of white trash, one of them exclaims“a fucking water fountain!”in one point, with the exception of Star, apparently has a darker-skin with dreadlocks, from certain angle she looks like a Rihanna dead-ringer, again the film remains cagey about that, in fact, ambiguity plays a significant part in the story, Star’s bravado to go alone with three middle-aged cowboys is interrupted before things could turn out rather creepy, plus LaBeouf’s Jake is a typically ambiguous character.
The through-line, without any doubt, is Star’s rite of passage into the adult world, her prelapsarian psyche will undergo a sea-change both mentally and sexually, falling in love with Jake is inevitable since their first eye-contact, but tellingly, she is wet behind her ears, fails to grasp that sometimes, a man who can give her orgasm is not the man who are willing to share a future with her, amazingly, as a feature running around 163 minutes, Arnold doesn’t need to slip in cheap thrill and belabored twists to keep audience hooked, Star’s patched journey itself can find its unforced connection with viewers thanks to Arnold’s intimate métier, sublime landscape and a pulsating esprit de corps.
Sasha Lane, a wondrous discovery, under Arnold’s tutelage, she oozes delectable gumption and moxie in her film debut, she is American Honey, the epitomized girl spirit of resilience, fearlessness without compromising her tenderness which rams home by many minutiae of her interactions with insects and another life forms, a flying squirrel, turtle, etc. (The most astonishingly transcendent scene is where she encounters a bear under the magic gleam of dawn.) Shia LaBeouf, on the other hand, continues to brave his offbeat career orbit favoring of artistic risks than mainstream offers, after an explicitly libido-driven turn in Lars von Trier’s NYMPHOMANIAC diptych (2013), here again, he is a horn-dog whose Freudian imperative is all over the place but also a self-conflicted mess courts danger and trouble, one can perfectly understand why a girl like Star can be attracted to him which is a tricky task but he nails it. Equally meritorious is Riley Keough, who goes all out in her slut-and-sleaze get-up, a reference point to contradict Star’s doe-eyed inexperience.
In short, AMERICAN HONEY is a beautiful showcase of Andrea Arnold’s aesthetic ambition, sensitive craftsmanship and what a formidable raconteur she could be if she matures, certainly a prominent filmmaker to be reckoned with in the international scope.