×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘American Honey’

Andrea Arnold's fourth feature, and her first set in the U.S., is a ravishing blend of feminine picaresque and iTunes musical.

With:
Sasha Lane, Riley Keough, Shia LaBeouf, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal B. Ice, Verronikah Ezell, Chad McKenzie Cox, Garry Howell, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Raymond Coalson, Isaiah Stone, Dakota Powers, Shawna Rae Mosely, Christopher David Wright.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3721936/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_4

Mere minutes into “American Honey,” her scrappy, sprawling astonishment of a fourth feature, Andrea Arnold hits the audience with a song choice almost too perfect to work. As a girl’s gaze meets a boy’s across the packed aisles of a Midwestern Walmart, the euphoric EDM throb of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s 2011 smash “We Found Love” hijacks the busy soundscape, setting a love story emphatically in motion by the time he hops up to dance on the checkout counter. “We found love in a hopeless place,” the song’s chorus ecstatically declares, over and over, as well it might — does it get more hopeless than Walmart, after all? It’s a gesture so brazenly big and romantically literal that it can’t help but have your heart, and it’s such an early, ebullient cinematic climax that Arnold dares repeat it two hours later, cranking up the song again in a more fraught, nervous context. Like much of what the director risks in “American Honey,” she shouldn’t get away with it, but most defiantly does.

Of course Arnold would choose this song. Be it in the grimy towers of an Essex council estate, the wind-whipped moors of Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire or, now, the truck stops and fleapit motels lining America’s highways, finding love in a hopeless place — or at least a bit of rapture amid the rubble — is something of a recurring theme in the British director’s work, though she’s never previously committed to it in quite such sensual, saturated fashion. Part dreamy millennial picaresque, part distorted tapestry of Americana and part exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical, “Honey” daringly commits only to the loosest of narratives across its luxurious 162-minute running time. Yet it’s constantly, engrossingly active, spinning and sparking and exploding in cycles like a Fourth of July Catherine wheel: If Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” hadn’t already claimed cinematic possession of Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Arnold could aptly have thrown that one onto her playlist too.

After the stripped-to-bone minimalism of her remarkable but divisive “Wuthering Heights” adaptation — pointedly rejected by Cannes selectors after her first two features each scooped a Jury Prize at the festival — one can hardly blame Arnold for treating herself to this kind of sunburnt, open-armed excess. But while the Brit’s first U.S.-set feature has a jangly rhythm all its own, it’s not a complete creative departure either. There are aesthetic flourishes, character dynamics and nature-based motifs here that date as far back as her Oscar-winning 2003 short “Wasp.” Meanwhile, in her thorny but nakedly vulnerable 18-year-old protagonist Star (played by camera-magnetizing newcomer Sasha Lane), Arnold has found a transatlantic twin to Mia Williams, the chipped-enamel heroine of 2009’s “Fish Tank.”

Like Mia, Star has a long life ahead of her but not a whole lot to look forward to. With her parents out of the picture for reasons that require some assembly on the audience’s part, she’s left pretty much on her own to provide for two pre-teen charges, foraging for spoiled food in supermarket dumpsters as she dreams modestly of a trailer to call her own. (Arnold, whose unerring facility with very young child performers is repeatedly proven here, paints this glum home life in achingly specific strokes: One kid’s befuddled attack on a shrink-wrapped chicken is a short film on its own.) When she meets a gaggle of similarly disaffected young misfits at the aforementioned Walmart, she’s immediately drawn to their smirkingly charismatic leader Jake (Shia LaBeouf, sporting his own ratty braid and facial piercings), a kind of enigmatic Pied Piper for the douche-bro generation.

The kids, it turns out, are jointly traveling across the Midwest, eking out a living by selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions — a scheme the film openly acknowledges is antiquated, a nod to a world shifting ever-so-slightly faster than this staid belt of middle America. (Hey, it’s not like they’re hawking Good Housekeeping in Manhattan.) Dumping the children on a dubious guardian, Star rashly jumps on board, acting on her volatile erotic chemistry with Jake and finding an immediate enemy in the collective’s terrifying manager Krystal (a splendid Riley Keough), a spray-tanned devil in a Confederate-flag bikini. From cream-colored Stetsons to star-spangled freight trains to the very casting of Keough (granddaughter of Elvis Presley) herself, Arnold doesn’t shy away from the most blatant of ‘Murican iconography, compressing it all into a kind of heightened, top-heavy American dream on the verge of collapse.

That opening act is about as structured as things get in “American Honey,” as Star tumbles headlong into a routine of on-the-cheap hedonism, petty and not-so-petty crime, and heated sexual sparring with Jake. Just as she learns to accept life on a freewheeling, moment-to-moment basis, so must the audience, tracing the character’s momentous, often painful emotional growth spurts amid the raucous repetition of the gang’s lifestyle.

While exhilarating as sensory spectacle, “American Honey” perhaps works most satisfyingly as a femme-driven corrective to Harmony Korine’s comparable but inferior “Spring Breakers,” a notional girl-power exercise that muted its female characters’ perspective in favor of James Franco’s gonzo mentor figure. That’s not an error Arnold makes. Despite the apparent stunt casting of LaBeouf — who easily delivers his best performance here, bleeding the eccentricities of his own celebrity persona into the character to fascinating, oddly moving effect — the film never slips away from Star’s evolving point of view, or Lane’s electric presence.

Even viewers who find this traveling circus of cheap thrills and cheaper booze wearying would be hard pressed to deny the iridescent vitality with which it has been put on screen. Every technical contribution here, from Joe Bini’s wild, whirligig editing to the relentlessly switching, swarming soundtrack — covering every contemporary pop base from glassily futuristic hip-hop to the warm cornbread country of Lady Antebellum’s title-inspiring ballad, beautifully deployed here as an unabashedly sentimental singalong — serves Arnold’s vision with blazing commitment to the cause. Not for nothing are the closing credits uniquely presented as an alphabetical list of names, democratically merging actors and gaffers alike: If ever a film seemed like an amorphous team effort, it’s this one.

Still, one name does deserve celebration above all others, and that’s Arnold’s steadfast cinematographer Robbie Ryan — a veritable sorcerer of light who conjures one astounding image after another in the director’s signature Academy ratio. The elegantly curtailed proportions of the frame have the added effect of making all these youthful misadventures play, appropriately enough, like Instagram in motion. Not that most cameraphone snappers could find the jewel tones that Ryan excavates in dusty gas-station signage, or negotiate the breathtaking balance between fleshy, flame-colored contours and inky shadow that he finds in the film’s twilit love scenes — moments where the camera appears quite literally to be on fire. Yellow diamonds in the light, indeed.

Film Review: 'American Honey'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 2016. Running time: 162 MIN.

Production: (U.K.-U.S.) A Maven Pictures, Film4, BFI presentation of a Parts & Labor, Pulse Films production in association with Mandown Pictures. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Pouya Shahbazian, Alice Weinberg, Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa. Executive producers, Rose Garnett, David Kosse, Ben Roberts, Lizzie Francke, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Charlotte Ubben, Hardy Justice, Marisa Clifford, Paul Grindey, Mike Goodridge, Melissa Hook Shahbazian. Co-producer, Julia Oh.

Crew: Directed, written by Andrea Arnold. Camera (color), Robbie Ryan; editor, Joe Bini; music supervisor, Earworm Music; production designer, Kelly Mcgehee; art director, Lance Mitchell; set decorator, Graham Wichman; costume designer, Alex Bovaird; sound, Rashad Omar; supervising sound editor, Nicolas Becker; re-recording mixer, Cyril Holtz, Jamie Roden; visual effects, Double Negative; stunt coordinator, Kent W. Luttrell; casting, Lucy Pardee, Jennifer Venditti.

With: Sasha Lane, Riley Keough, Shia LaBeouf, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal B. Ice, Verronikah Ezell, Chad McKenzie Cox, Garry Howell, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Raymond Coalson, Isaiah Stone, Dakota Powers, Shawna Rae Mosely, Christopher David Wright.

More Film

  • International Film Festival and Awards Macao

    Macao Festival Signs Double Deals With Shanghai

    The International Film Festival & Awards Macao on Sunday signed twin agreements with institutions in Shanghai. The IFFAM, which is building towards its fourth edition in December, struck a collaboration agreement with the Shanghai International Film Festival. Separately, it is solidifying an existing informal arrangement with the Shanghai Film Art Academy concerning an exchange of [...]

  • wanda Movie Metropolis Qingdao

    Why Simon West Is Making Movies in China (EXCLUSIVE)

    British director Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Con Air,” “The Expendables 2”) is set to dive further into the Middle Kingdom at the helm of his second Chinese action-adventure blockbuster. The Wanda-backed “The Legend Hunters,” hits theaters next summer. West was brought onto the project by veteran producer Eryong, who had approached him about [...]

  • The Eight Hundred

    Chinese Research Group May Have Caused Cancellation of 'The Eight Hundred' Premiere

    Chinese authorities may have abruptly yanked the $80 million patriotic war epic “The Eight Hundred” the day before its opening-night premiere at the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival because it didn’t portray rivals of the ruling Communist Party in a sufficiently negative light, local reports said. Huayi Bros., which produced the film, had on Friday attributed [...]

  • Simon West

    Simon West Directing Chinese Tomb-Raid Movie 'Legend Hunters' (EXCLUSIVE)

    British director Simon West, who made Angelina Jolie-starring “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” is now co-directing a Chinese tomb-raiding film. “The Legend Hunters” is the next installment in the “Mojin” universe based on the popular fantasy novel series “Ghost Blows Out the Light.” Backed by Wanda Pictures and Beijing-based Saints Entertainment, the film is set for [...]

  • Emu Runner

    Sydney Film Review: 'Emu Runner'

    Writer-director Imogen Thomas’ debut feature “Emu Runner” has and probably will play in designated family-themed strands of film festivals, and given its story of a 9-year-old Aboriginal girl who deals with grief in the wake of her mother’s death by bonding with a lone female representative of Australia’s largest native bird species, this programming strategy [...]

  • Sophia Antipolis

    Locarno in Los Angeles Film Review: 'Sophia Antipolis'

    There are two Sophias in French director Virgil Vernier’s clever, cunning, chilling fifth feature. The first is its setting, the eponymous “Sophia Antipolis,” a technology park in the south of France, a place self-consciously designed as an experiment in social engineering, where an international community of professionals would, it was hoped, create an environment of [...]

  • I Lost My Body

    Netflix Pickup ‘I Lost My Body,’ ‘Buñuel,’ ‘Away’ Top Annecy Festival

    ANNECY, France  — Fulfilling expectations, Jeremy Clapin’s “I Lost My Body, the subject of one of the highest-profile Netflix deals at this year’s Cannes, won this Saturday the Annecy Festival’s top Cristal Award of best feature plus, in a relatively rare Annecy double whammy, the festival’s Audience Award. The first was expected, the second a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content