American Honey

 

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Andrea Arnold takes an American road trip and gets it both wondrously right and seriously wrong.

 
American Honey

Sasha Lane

 

For about a third of its length Andrea Arnold's new film seems to be a masterpiece, but for the other two thirds it feels like a misfire and, since the length is 164 minutes, American Honey is drastically weighed down by its weaker sections. This is felt all the more strongly because almost all of what is best in the film is to be found in the first hour.

 

Back in 1961 when Shadows appeared here, John Cassavetes was seen to have created a new kind of film: if the neo-realist movement had taken cameras out into the streets, Cassavetes had found realism in improvised dialogue that sounded entirely natural and with actors totally divorced from any image associated with film stars. Now Arnold, with a stunning non-professional lead actress in Sasha Lane and aided by her editor Joe Bini, gives us in American Honey a film that seems to exist in the moment. The use of the old ratio of 1.33:1 may encourage an intimacy of focus that draws us in, but the fact is that what we see has absolute immediacy and no feeling whatever of being set up. This is remarkable and Arnold's finest achievement to date.

 

To start with no more is needed. We follow Star, Lane's role, an 18-year-old attracted by a stranger, Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), when she accepts his invitation to join him and his friends as they travel the roads of America raising money by selling magazine subscriptions often encouraged by spinning sob stories to potential customers. This set-up works well enough to satisfy Krystal (Riley Keough), Jake's lover, who runs the group. Furthermore, it creates a companionship on the road reminiscent of that shared by hippies in an earlier generation.

 

When the people targeted are rich, we may sympathise with these youngsters who can find nothing better than to adopt this life-style, but our real concern is aroused by the sight of those living in poverty as portrayed in the most telling sequence in the film's second half. Meanwhile, what plot there is involves a somewhat trite romantic triangle (Star, Jake and Krystal) and a heavy-handed extension of the notion that these young people are not without dreams. Star herself, such a believable presence due to Lane, sometimes behaves in ways that limit our understanding of her and if, ultimately, we are asked to admire her determination to keep going regardless (an echo here of Fellini's Cabiria in his 1956 film) we have by then become alienated by the film's length. It is not that the movie is too slowly paced, but that it lacks a strong enough dramatic arc since it too often suggests a sense of repetition rather than development. What has initially felt great has, long before the end, lost its hold for this reason - but what is consistent is the ability of Arnold's photographer, Robbie Ryan, to find beauty in settings that might seem to exclude that.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Raymond Coalson, Chad McKenzie Cox, Verronikah Ezell, Arrielle Holmes, Garry Howell, Crystal B. Ice, McCaul Lombardi, Will Paton.

 

Dir Andrea Arnold, Pro Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy and Alice Weinberg, Screenplay Andrea Arnold, Ph Robbie Ryan, Pro Des Kelly McGehee, Ed Joe Bini, Costumes Alex Bovaird.

 

Maven Pictures/Film4/BFI/Parts & Labor/Pulse Films-Universal Pictures International UK & Eire.
164 mins. USA/UK. 2016. Rel: 14 October 2016. Cert. 15.