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First Look Review - AMERICAN HONEY

A teenager sets off on a road trip with a rag-tag group of magazine subscription sellers.






Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)

Directed by: Andrea Arnold

Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough



Arnold must be commended not only on her breathtaking style, but also (more importantly) for her commitment to making credible heroines of young women who might otherwise be held at arm’s length. This is what makes American Honey, flaws and all, worth seeking out.


British director Andrea Arnold took home her third Jury Prize from this year’s Cannes Film Festival (the previous two being for Red Road in 2006 and Fish Tank in 2009) for her newest effort, the much-anticipated American Honey. For this sprawling work, Arnold has transposed much of Fish Tank’s visual style and narrative interests from rainy East London to the sunny center of the U.S.A. Though the America-set film suffers from some noticeable structural problems, American Honey should solidify Arnold’s reputation as a stylish cinematic champion of the marginalised.


American Honey revolves around Star (Sasha Lane, making her film debut), a young woman who lives in poverty in Oklahoma, caring for a child that is not hers. At a discount super market, Star catches the eye of Jake (Shia LaBeouf, in the perfect kind of role for his swaggering weirdness). Jake is a charismatic member of a rag-tag troupe of young drifters who speed from state to state, from motel to motel, across the American Midwest in an old van - sustaining themselves by selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Jake asks Star to drop everything to join the group, and, intrigued by the promise of new unknown adventures, she eventually leaves behind what little she has to join the renegade salespeople on their cross-country escapades.

A scene that occurs around American Honey’s midway point brilliantly stages the film’s powerful paradox: in a spontaneous moment of flirtatious separation from Jake, Star hops in a sleek convertible with three middle-aged, well-to-do, ten-gallon-hat toting Texans. The trio of men, visibly delighted and fascinated by Star’s devil-may-care attitude, drives her back to a large posh ranch, where Star bets the men that she can throw back potent mezcal and eat the hallucinogenic worm that came with the bottle. As the scene unfolds and as Star wins more and more money, one wonders how much control she has of the situation - the men’s fascination falls barely short of lechery, and Star’s reckless intoxication makes her seem more susceptible to danger. Nevertheless, she maintains a strange, commanding control over the situation, even if one wonders what would happen if Jake didn’t show up to violently whisk her away. This scene pointedly asks American Honey’s central question: is Star in control? Yes, she does choose to abandon her familial obligations on a whim. But Star is never completely in control - we see how the magazine selling racket can make victims of buyers and sellers alike, and Star is not free from this harsh reality.


Though Star is American Honey’s central character, her situation can be applied to the whole magazine-selling group. Watching American Honey while considering both sides of this freedom spectrum often makes the film a deeply emotional experience: you are both envious of and energised by the gang’s raucous, youthful open road freedom, but after the blustery admiration has died down, you realise the monotony and aridness of their lifestyle and the deep sadness behind whatever circumstances forced them into this often dangerous and exploitative community. When Star is given an orientation spiel, we feel her excitement; when a new recruit is given the same welcome speech much later in the film, our wonder has curiously morphed into deep pity. In this way, American Honey succeeds in integrating the viewer into a world that is both excitingly liberating and heartbreakingly limiting.

All this would make for a great film - but unfortunately, American Honey’s narrative loses considerable steam in the final hour. Not long after Star begins her complicated romantic relationship with Jake, the film zeroes in on the two to the exclusion of much of what initially made the film so stirring. Scenes filled with Star’s curious or hurt glances toward Jake grow repetitive. A couple motel-room interactions that Star has with Krystal (Riley Keough, playing the group’s chilly leader and Jake’s former lover) reduce Krystal’s potentially compelling villainy to that of a run-of-the-mill romantic adversary. It’s not that Arnold didn’t have the storytelling resources: further fleshing out of other members of the gang of colorful delinquents (played by a group of diverse and talented young newcomers) could have buttressed the romance nicely. Some scenes towards the end - particularly one in which Star absent-mindedly wanders into the house of a strung-out heroin addict with young neglected children - show an evolution of the force of the early scenes, but these come too-little-too-late to dissuade nagging thoughts that the film has missed out on something. In its soulful exploration of the Midwest, the running time theoretically should not have a problem - a film of this scope deserves every last one of American Honey’s 162 minutes. Yet Arnold’s decision to narrow in on the flat romance considerably deflates the magisterial sweep of the story. Though these flaws don’t keep American Honey from being fascinating and worthwhile, they do keep it from reaching the dizzying heights of its potential.


Regardless of the distracting lassitude of the back half of American Honey’s story, Arnold’s visuals never lose their boundless energy; watching the windswept mobility of her and cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s shots can be like feeling a strong breeze take your breath away for one or two astounding moments. Though Arnold is British, her work proves that she is perceptively in touch with a road-trip wildness that flourished in American cinema during the late '60s and early '70s. American Honey harkens back to Easy Rider (1969), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Thieves Like Us (1974), and, most strikingly, to Barbara Loden’s feminist road film masterpiece, Wanda (1971). To transpose this '70s feel into the 21st century, Arnold seamlessly folds in a youthful fascination with sex, freedom, and danger not unlike that found in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2013). In creating this blend, Arnold is never gimmicky, didactic, or saccharine - she wisely and breathlessly evades that unholy trinity of cinematic sins, and American Honey is stronger for it.

American Honey takes bold risks, both in terms of style, story, and subject matter, and any movie that takes bold risks and falls short is, in my opinion, more worthy of viewing than films of calculatedly bland likability. Just as with Fish Tank, Arnold must be commended not only on her breathtaking style, but also (more importantly) for her commitment to making credible heroines of young women who might otherwise be held at arm’s length. This is what makes American Honey, flaws and all, worth seeking out.

American Honey is in cinemas October 14th.




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