Andrea Arnold is a director whose work I will always get excited about. Ever since stumbling across the fantastic ‘Fish Tank’ during my time at university, I have regarded Arnold as one of the finest British filmmakers working today, not least for her knack of drawing out amazing acting performances from her cast. So, you can imagine my delight when I learned of her latest project, ‘American Honey’, which appeared to be something of a step-up from the obscure ‘Fish Tank’. I mean, Shia “just do it” Labeouf is on the cast list for a start.
This time round, Arnold has swapped the grit of estate life in London, in favour of the wild, rebellious highways of the USA. The story follows a young girl named Star (Sasha Lane), who decides to travel across America with a ragtag gang of door-to-door salesmen and saleswomen, in an attempt to make some money and hopefully escape her troubled life. Star soon slots right in with the sales crew and their hedonistic lifestyle, but her unpredictable relationship with Jake (Labeouf), the leader of the group, causes problems aplenty.
The first thing I have to commend about this film (and the list is long, trust me), is the acting. As I mentioned before, Andrea Arnold is very talented at drawing out these raw, visceral performances from her actors, and she has succeeded once again here. Similarly to Katie Jarvis (Fish Tank), Arnold has once again plucked an unknown actress from the streets to play her leading lady, and in Sasha Lane, she may have found a true star (pardon the pun). Lane is mesmerising as this vulnerable creature hiding behind a tough exterior, and she manages to display both these sides of her character with finesse. Sasha Lane was nominated for the Breakthrough Star Award at this year’s JumpCut UK Film Awards, and personally, I would’ve liked to have seen her take the award, even over the amazing little star that is Jacob Tremblay; so that should tell you just how impressive she is. Alongside her, Shia Labeouf pulls out a performance which hits, and possibly exceeds, the high standard he set in ‘Lawless’. A young man of questionable sanity, and even more questionable acting abilities, he once again proves that we shouldn’t write him off just yet.
If I were to highlight a weakness in ‘American Honey’, it would be that the narrative never really peaks, instead we just meander through 2 hours and 43 minutes (yep, it’s a long haul trip) of kids driving across America trying to scam people. But, if you truly engage with the film and look deeper, beyond the basic narrative, you’ll find so much more. This is a story of youth culture and rebellion, romance, the “American dream” and hopes and desires, and also the perils of recklessness and naivety that come with chasing such ideals. The whole thing is shot beautifully, too. Kudos to cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who has also worked on ‘Fish Tank’, ‘Slow West’ and ‘I, Daniel Blake’), for helping to create a sense of dreamlike wonder for much of the film, and juxtaposing this with very dark, very real and harrowing scenes which bring us crashing back down to Earth. All of these thematic and aesthetic treats are tied up nicely by a subtle, yet immensely effective soundtrack, which makes ‘American Honey’ the whole package.
The incredibly lengthy runtime will undoubtedly put a lot of people off, but for those willing to commit, you shall reap the rewards, I promise. Andrea Arnold is definitely on her way to the top, but her work still goes under the radar for most people, and ‘American Honey’ is a severely under-appreciated gem from 2016 that I urge you all to make the effort to watch. It’s a film which requires patience, a keen-eye and an open-mind – it’s not an easy watch, by any means – but I defy any hardcore film buff not to fall in love with ‘American Honey’.