American Honey (2016) Review

Andrea Arnold’s (Fish Tank) newest movie sees her take the trip across the Atlantic to tell the rags-to-rags story of a bunch of misfits. It’s a romantic American tale for the disillusioned youth of the twenty first century. It’s not a pretty story, full of drugs and pathetic brawls, but it is an addictive movie, and a visually beautiful one too. American Honey follows the story of Star (Sasha Lane), an eighteen year old girl, trapped in her poverty-stricken life at home, rummaging through bins to find enough food to live. She meets Shia LaBeouf’s Jake, the cocky but charming leader of a young magazine sales crew. They immediately take a liking to one another and he entices her to shun society and join his team of young people as they travel America, drinking, swearing and stealing from the people they meet. Their relationship stops and starts as Jake teaches her the ways of selling from house to house, improvising heart-wrenching stories in order to swindle the cash out of the people he meets. They all work for the no-nonsense Krystal (an incredible turn by Riley Keough), who treats Jake something like a personal assistant, making him apply fake tan up and down her legs as Star watches on angrily. The tension grows between Star and Krystal, and in the scenes with all three main characters in together it is palpable, as you wait for that explosive moment.
The small 4:3 aspect ratio boxes the audience in, narrowing our focus and thus giving us a unique window through which to enter into this utterly bizarre world. This effect is furthered by the camera work which constantly gets close enough to the characters to allow us to smell the alcohol on their breaths and see the dirt beneath their nails. We are on the journey with this ragtag directionless group, listening to their small talk about Darth Vader and their loud rap music. We squeeze between them time and time again in the tiny van in which they travel the south of America, seeing Star laugh, and have sex, and scream in anger. The cinematography is second-to-none, as we witness the natural beauty of the lands, but also the deeply moving poverty that pervades in town after town.
Sasha Lane is incredible. The greatest debut since Jacob Tremblay in Room. The focus of every scene, she really carries the film. Shia Labeouf also gives a wonderful performance, perhaps the best of his career so far. His Jake is charismatic and magnetic, despite the horrific Adam Ant-esque rattail. They aren’t the best people in the world, not by a long shot, with the morally corrupt way in which they often earn their money being a testament to that. Jake steals and lies and feels no remorse about it. But we still root for them. Star isn’t a truly bad person, she’s just adrift, she’s suffering and has no place in the world. Her and Jake may not be perfect for each other, but at least they care about one another.
This modern story of the youthful search for some type of American Dream clocks in at over two and a half hours. That simple fact alone will turn people away. Those who do enter the cinema are no doubt going to be divided too. The constant conversations, and idiotic actions of a group of young misfits, and the trundling storyline that sticks the camera in the van with them, will not be for everyone. But allow the camera to draw you in, breath in this little bizarre subculture, and engage in the madness (and beauty) that seeps from every frame, and you may just find a touching, at times heartbreaking tale, of a young girl going precisely nowhere.

Verdict: At times it’s brutal and unpleasant, but it’s also gorgeously shot and daring. A movie that stays with you. 9.25/10



Director Appreciation Week 2 Review: Nights and Weekends (2008)

This is perhaps the most under-appreciated film of the mumblecore genre. It focuses upon the long distance relationship between James (Joe Swanberg) and Mattie (Greta Gerwig). We follow them on the titular nights and weekends, as James visits Mattie in New York, and in return Mattie visits James in Chicago. For 90% of the movie they are the only two characters on screen, and so it is great that they are so absorbing to watch. As with all of Swanberg’s films the plot is slim at best, but thankfully the relationship at the heart of the movie is a completely raw, thoroughly intriguing one. We watch as they struggle along in one of the most realistic portrayals of long-distance relationships on screen in recent years. They argue, they have sex, they lounge around. It is your usual mumblecore topics, but there is something deeper here, brought about mainly through the improvisational qualities of both Swanberg and Gerwig. A particular affecting moment is when the two discuss the role we ultimately play in other people’s lives. It feels like something Richard Linklater would produce if given only a few thousand dollars to work with.
After a trip to New York and then to Chicago, the film jumps forward a year. It is there that the film really treads new ground, and allows what it has built to finally be unleashed in a saddening, at moments brutal, look at the harsh realities of relationships.
It’s a movie to be seeked out. A tiny, unpolished and yet quietly impressive movie that digs deeper and exposes more of relationships than perhaps it first lets on.

Director Appreciation Week 2 Review: Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007)

The vital trio (perhaps quartet is you include Gerwig) of mumblecore, Swanberg, Duplass and Bujalski, unite for one of the most popular films of the genre. It follows Greta Gerwig as the titular Hannah and her friendships and relationships with Matt (Kent Osborne), Paul (Andrew Bujalski) and Mike (Mark Duplass). She works with Paul and Matt, but they spend little time actually working and the majority of their time goofing around. Through this we see Hannah’s lovelife shift and change. Hannah perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of breaking up when you are unsure if it is the correct decision to make, and the uncomfortable, directionless aftermath of such a choice. She flits around from relationship to relationship in what is a very slow tale, even by mumblecore standards. Unlike in other Swanberg works, we don’t dive as deep into the troubles of Hannah as perhaps one would first think, although there is a particularly nice moment towards the end. Thankfully though, it is saved from being a tedious affair by the work of the actors. It requires realistic, relatable characters who can be entertaining even when the plot is moving at a snail’s pace, and thankfully Swanberg found these qualities in his four main actors. They carry what little story there is, and they do it expertly well. No matter what side of the story they are on, the work of these actors allows each and every character to be empathetic to the audience. We root for Mike and then Hannah, and then Matt and Hannah, and then Paul and so on and so forth.

At one point Hannah mentions how she struggles with chronic dissatisfaction. That is the real story of Hannah Takes the Stairs. The struggles of feeling unsatisfied in relationships and the perhaps juxtapositional struggles of wanting to simply be good enough. These are themes Swanberg would revisit time and time again in his movies, but this, his third effort, was particularly relatable if not exactly thrilling.
It appears that his work has only gotten better as he has become a more seasoned director. Out of the four reviewed this week, his newest films are much superior to his oldest, with Nights and Weekends sitting at the top of the pile.

Director Appreciation Week 2 Review: LOL (2006)

LOL is one of those frustratingly difficult to find early Joe Swanberg fils. However, unlike some of his work, particularly from the 2011 binge, it is at least accessible somewhere, admittedly only after some intense digging. LOL builds upon the themes of the short film Swanberg directed called Hissy Fits in 2005. Hissy Fits allowed him to briefly touch upon technology and relationships, and here it becomes a fully fledged, if slightly disturbing, idea.We focus on three men and their quest for love/sex (delete as appropriate). What these three friends share in common is firstly that they are self-involved, rather horrible men and secondly that technology plays a huge role in their lives. Films focusing on internet relationships and sexting have been growing in number in the last few years with the great technological boom we are currently experiencing, and it is intriguing to see this, perhaps one of the first movies dealing with such niche topics, created a whole decade ago!

Tim (Swanberg) is a man who pays more attention to his laptop than his girlfriend; whilst Chris is in a long distance relationship with Greta (Greta Gerwig) based almost entirely on nude sexting. Alex’s story is perhaps the main tale of the film and is may be the most depressing to see. In his quest to meet this too-good-to-be-true lady he sees pictures of on the internet, he completely ignores the beautiful and adorable Tessa who is nothing but good to him. It’s a movie about three men being very stupid and three women who are too good to have to put up with it.

LOL is probably Swanberg’s least accessible movie. At the very least, it is the Swanberg movie that casual audiences are most likely to turn off after twenty minutes. That is because the premise outlined above only really becomes clear thirty to forty minutes into the movie. It’s an incredibly slow build even for a film of the mumblecore genre, and at times near the start the audience will question if there is any plot at all. There’s also the jolting, unnecessary music video clips inserted at various points. Gradually it kicks into gear. The problem most will have is that that gear is probably barely third, most likely second. This is Swanberg barely pushing past a trundle. A brisk walking pace is too much to ask. But here it half works, because the pace and the spaces it creates, allows the under-appreciated social commentary aspect to come to the fore.

Swanberg’s first film is by no means a classic, but most people’s aren’t. This is Joe finding his feet. And despite the slowness of it, there’s some interesting concepts to behold, and the promise of better to come.
It’s recommended for Swanberg purists only though.

Director Appreciation Week 2 Review: Kissing on the Mouth (2005)

Kissing on the Mouth, Swanberg’s first feature, is perhaps worth a watch quite simply because it arrived at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas in 2005. That was the same year Andrew Bujalski showed Mutual Appreciation and The Duplass brothers screened The Fluffy Chair at the festival too. This trio of films kicked off what would become known as the mumblecore movement. Thus Kissing on the mouth can be regarded as seminal viewing for those interested in the birth of the independent movie sub genre.

However, in all other respects, this is a movie to skip. Swanberg has freely admitted in interviews that he never set out to create masterpieces and that everyone’s first few films tend to be poor. Kissing on the Mouth is certainly a poor movie. Even for a mumblecore advocate such as I, it is a tedious experience. Ellen is sleeping with her ex-boyfriend, and Swanberg plays her jealous roommate, Patrick. There’s little more plot to it than that and it struggles to even fill its lean 78 minute runtime. The film is also extremely graphic, showing not just penetrative sex but male ejaculation, which honestly adds nothing to the movie. Thankfully Swanberg has toned down the pornographic elements in his more recent films.

There are some glimpses of true creative brilliance but they are too few and far between. The interviews that overplay some scenes are extremely intriguing and are clearly meant to have an impact upon Ellen. However, this is never properly explored, and neither is the jealousy of Patrick. There are interesting threads but they are just not expanded upon enough to make the movie consistently watchable. Swanberg improved in later movies such as Nights and Weekends where the themes such as breakups were explored more thoroughly, allowing true character development.

Of all Swanberg’s movies, his first should be essential viewing, but apart from its historical relevance, it is one that is easy to skip.


Do we live in a post-Mumblecore world?

I think by now it’s safe to say yes.
Mumblecores existence relied on its ultimately unsustainable style and values. It’s use of amateur actors, little or no script, and low production values did not allow for any serious development for the directors. And so they all had to eventually leave behind these roots, taking with them merely just the themes (everyday lives of the twenties and thirties) and some of the style (naturalistic dialogue) they honed during their Mumblecore phase.
Just take a look on the world-renowned streaming site Netflix and you’ll see Mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg’s newest project – an anthology series featuring the Hollywood power of Orlando Bloom, Dave Franco and Hannibal Buress. Underground movements end the very moment they become mainstream, it has been that way since the days of punk and the Sex Pistols in the mid-1970s.
So when did this little indie genre take that gigantic step?

Perhaps this requires something of a history lesson.

Funny Haha in 2002 was the prologue, with the movement truly bursting into life at the SXSW festival in 2005, with the works of the aforementioned Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and Duplass Brothers all being shown. They were subsequently grouped together under the umbrella term – Mumblecore. And in the following years their work indeed continued in a similar vein.

Swanberg went on to make perhaps the most famous of all Mumblecore movies, Hannah Takes the Stairs, collaborating with Bujalski and Duplass as well as Greta Gerwig. Then he went on something of a splurge, directing at least a movie a year until 2011 when he made no less than six movies. In that same period the Duplass Brothers (perhaps disappointedly considering their Puffy Chair is the most charming of the original ‘trio’) only directed Baghead, which was one of a new type of mumblecore horror film. This sub genre of the sub genre erupted from nowhere – and the low-budget horror movie scene became clumsily named (or geniusly depending on which way you look at it) Mumblegore. Bujalski meanwhile only made the slow paced Beeswax in 2009 before taking a short break. Other directors stepped up to the plate though to fill the void left by Bujalski and Duplass, not least Lynn Shelton with Humpday (2009) and Aaron Katz whose Quiet City (2007) and Dance Party, USA (2006) are two of the most well-renowned mumblecore movies.

It seems around the 2010 mark though that things began to change.
The Duplass brothers worked with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in Cyrus (2010) and followed that up with a collaboration with Ed Helms and Jason Segel in Jeff Who Lives At Home (2011). These films were much crisper than their previous outings and obviously featured high-profile actors. Shelton too made the jump, hiring Emily Blunt for Your Sister’s Sister (2011).
Greta Gerwig, regarded by many as the quintessential mumblecore star, graduated to working with the likes of Ben Stiller in Greenberg (2010), as well as Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached (2011). Whilst Greenberg holds onto many of the tropes of the Mumblecore genre (awkward man child meets equally awkward woman), the Natalie Portman rom-com was a huge step in a different direction for Gerwig, straight into Hollywood cliche territory. She has since made the wonderfully charming Frances Ha (2012) which she co-write along with independent director Noah Baumbach, and it harkens back to the focus of the Mumblecore movies she used to make – girl in the city moving from apartment to apartment trying to get her life together as she struggles over questions of friendship, money, love and ultimately direction. Crucially though it is a cleaner production than the gritty Mumblecore movies, and it includes some Hollywood stars, most notably Girls (and now Star Wars) actor Adam Driver.
The most prolific of the bunch, Swanberg appears to have made the transition slightly later, as he began to work with Anna Kendrick in Drinking Buddies (2013) and then Happy Christmas (2014) before using Orlando Bloom in Digging for Fire (2015), and most recently Easy (2016), for Netflix. And finally there is Bujalski who only permanently made the move into mainstream with 2015’s Results where he worked with Guy Pearce and Cobie Smulders.

Admittedly looking at the movies mentioned, none of them are huge Hollywood blockbusters, they are just a handful of well known actors working on smaller budget movies. This however is still cause to proclaim Mumblecore dead. The premise of it could never withstand true technological advancement let alone the use of a script, lighting or professional actors, because it was exclusively a mode for telling stories of that particular moment. Movements live and they die when they are no longer needed or relevant. Mumblecore was required by those members of Generation Y to express their uncertainties about and perhaps inability coping in the new 21st century society. As their lives moved on and society around them did too, their means of communicating that message changed and the message itself shifted, even if only so slightly. They still make movies about similar topics but they aren’t so stripped back and they never can be again. Even when a new generation attempts to follow in the footsteps of the original mumblecore group, for example Lena Dunham with her freshman effort Tiny Furniture (2010), it is simply not the same. The meaning is familiar but it’s a different generation’s voice at the heart of it. And thus mumblecore will never be repeated, the same way the American avant garde, or Dogme 95 will never be repeated, but for now at least we can enjoy the later offerings of the directors in their post-mumblecore output.

The Influences on Mumblecore

March 22, 1995,
Le cinéma vers son deuxième siècle conference, Paris, France.

The who’s who of cinema is gathered together to celebrate the first century of the motion picture. They are also to discuss the future of cinema. Where will it go from here? Who will lead it?
Lars Von Trier (at this time most famous for Europa) is asked to speak about what comes next. Instead of the type of optimistic rallying cry one might expect, Von Trier distributes hundreds of red leaflets, announcing the birth of the Dogme 95 movement.


Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity

March 11-19, 2005,
South By Southwest Film Festival, Austin, Texas, USA.

For the first time, Kissing on the Mouth (Joe Swanberg), Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski), and the Puffy Chair (Mark and Jay Duplass) are screened together. Over the next decade and more, they, along with Frank V Ross, Lynn Shelton, Aaron Katz and many others, will forge the legacy of the Mumblecore generation.


Jay and Mark Duplass at SXSW

Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg entered the conference in Paris in 1995 to make a difference, to save cinema with their new experimental way of filmmaking. As for the Mumblecore group, the story goes that one night at a bar, Bujalski’s sound mixer, Eric Masunaga coined the term mumblecore, due to the fact it was difficult to hear what the actors were saying half the time as they mumbled so much. Bujalski would soon use it in an interview, apologising for that use later. Swanberg once spoke of how the term was an “obnoxious name nobody liked” and that it was “supposed to be a joke.” Mumblecore was not organised like Dogme 95 but still it has subsequently been viewed as a movement. There is no way to speak of the individual films without reference to this group that basically fell into being. So, Dogme 95 was intentional, Mumblecore happened purely by accident. That is not to say one is important and the other is not.

In many ways the two are greatly similar. They both have these legendary births, ten years apart – a specific moment in time when the movement was born. More integrally, they share many values. It would not be surprising to find Dogme 95’s Manifesto or Vow of Chastity in the bookshelf of Bujalski or Duplass. This “propaganda” highlights rules of filmmaking that many Mumblecore films follow. The importance of low production values in particular with a bare, basic, untouched look is shared by both. Compare The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg with Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth or LOL. Despite the greatly different subject matter, the shooting techniques are noticeably similar. They share this use of everyday locations without great preparation beforehand, and the use of handheld video cameras.

The purpose is of course different: The Danish masters were attempting to “purify” filmmaking, by stripping away special effects and other modifications in postproduction. For them it was a cleansing of the palette. Bujalski, Duplass et al, chose to make movies on a shoestring budget with only a plot synopsis, a few friends and a video camera in places they already owned, because that was the only way they could. It wasn’t about making a particular statement per se, but about how they were able to make movies, which would in turn shine a light on their own generation.


Dogme #1: The Celebration (1998)

This particular approach to filmmaking was itself born of the period in which they began making movies. The early 2000’s saw the explosion of the internet and a great jump in technological advancements in general. The average twenty-something could now afford to buy (or hire) a handheld video camera. This seemingly insignificant fact played a huge part in the birth of Mumblecore. Unlike every other generation before them, the filmmaking generation coming of age in the noughties were in the privileged position of being able to make a film without big money or the directing hand of Hollywood. And not only that, but put it out into the world. Obviously it was only beginning then. Now we see the full impact, with the popularity of streaming services such as Netflix, and the downloading of digital movies. Mumblecore directors rode the very first wave of tech advancement, adding their own entrepreneurial spirit and the DIY ethic that has slowly seeped into everyday society since the punks in the 70s, to make the movies they wanted to make. For all the influences that can be cited, the timing of the movement and the developments that were taking place in the world outside Austin, Texas, must be seen as playing a huge part in Mumblecore’s creation.

Obviously there were others though who influenced the style of the filmmakers. They have been called The New Talkies for their focus on naturalistic dialogue instead of great action set pieces or special effects. This can be traced back all the way to the French New Wave cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s. Eric Rohmer for example was known in part for his love of dialogue – his protagonists often being greatly articulate. On the face of it, it is easy to argue that the comparison reflects unfavourably on the French, but perhaps that is too naive a view. The French directors were iconoclastic, and like Dogme 95, they were fighting back against the cinema at the time (period pieces were their biggest gripe). What they wanted to focus on was contemporary life – the issues faced by the many. It was quick filming, shot documentary style. The Mumblecore movement may seem like a bunch of slackers walking and talking in front of a camera, but it too is about looking into a very particular period in people’s lives. Mumblecore mines the real life trials and tribulations of men and women in their twenties and early thirties. The questions of uncertainty, success, failure, love, sex that many face are addressed. It may not be as dramatic or piercing, and it may not last as long in the memory as Dogme or the New Wave, but it’s just as clear.


Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960)

Some may look further back into history at the experimental films of the pre- and particularly post-war American avant garde to find influences on the Mumblecore generation. Take for example arguably the most famous experimental movie of the time – Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). It is slow, confusing and follows a circular plot for fourteen minutes. That is a way many would describe Mumblecore.
In all seriousness perhaps there is a link to be found. Manhatta (1921) is a ten minute short which simply celebrates the city of Manhattan. These experimental films are less concerned with structure and narrative as they are with moods and emotions. They work outside the usually accepted boundaries of what a film should be. Mumblecore does this also, admittedly to a lesser extent, but it still negates these traditional aspects – narrative, script, lighting, effects – instead providing something much more unconventional. Possibly the best example is Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966). It is divisive like the work of Swanberg or Duplass (and it is just as notoriously difficult to find a copy of too). It focuses on the lives of young women living in the Chelsea Hotel, and it is shot split-screen and is over three hours in length. Whilst it is more self-indulgent art than Mumblecore is, it has many of the same principal qualities of everyday tales focusing on everyday people being used as the loosely strung plot.
What is also interesting is that the experimental directors from the 1930s and 40s were  the first students of the new film schools in America, and thus their work as a whole is representative of a new generation taking the reins and molding film into a different shape, just like the members of Dogme 95 and the French New Wave, and now Generation Y Mumblecore directors are doing too.

Around the mid-century there was another European group who influenced the Mumblecore generation just as much, that being the Italian Neo-realists. Again they are indicative of their time, as they took a deep look at the troubles they faced – Post WWII after the fall of Mussolini’s government. The Italian Neo-realists took their cameras to the streets and tried to film real people in order to find a type of realism not seen in generic cinema, that could properly represent the struggles of the poverty stricken working class. Again Mumblecore does not carry such a political message but it’s attempts at realism are drawn directly from their Italian forebearers.


Manhatta (1921)

It would be wrong not to flip the history pages forward though and praise the work of the independent filmmakers of the later twentieth century. Mumblecore directors are also called Slackevettes by some, and rightly so, considering the great debt they owe to the work of John Cassavetes. He also worked mainly with friends, promising them money from profit rather than up-front payment – a classic independent film trope that the Mumblecore generation continued. Cassavetes wasn’t interested in making industry movies, he preferred the freedom a self-funded film would allow him. Cassavetes work was not as improvised as some would believe but whilst there was a script available the actors were given free reign over how they wished to act the scenes, hence the naturalistic dialogue.
Speaking of which, another major influence, in fact such a huge influence that some have even claimed his work is the beginning of Mumblecore, is that of Richard Linklater. The Texan director’s movies have always focused on character and emotion over narrative, and many focus on the issues of being certain ages (Dazed and Confused: High School; Everybody Wants Some!!: College; Slacker: Post-Grad; Before Sunrise: Twenties; Before Sunset: Thirties; Before Midnight: Forties; Boyhood: Everything!). Like Swanberg and other Gen Y directors, Linklater also writes his films along with his cast members, particularly the Before Trilogy. This allows natural dialogue to flow.
There are other 90s directors who deserve a nod too including Kevin Smith, directing his friends in the shop in which he worked for Clerks and of course Noah Baumbach for Kicking and Screaming.


Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004)


Mumblecore is not a sub genre that will be long into the future analysed, but perhaps it should be, as a continuation and adaptation of long-held independent film traditions. Today, we still analyse the likes of Warhol, Vinterberg, Von Trier and Eric Rohmer, and recognise their importance in essentially subverting expectations of what a film is “supposed” to represent. The Mumblecore directors do the exact same thing (although they are the least-committed and softest of these “rogues”), and like all these generations before them, they represent a specific moment in time, when DIY ethic and technology blended allowing twenty-somethings confused and perhaps lost in this ever-changing world to make films about twenty-somethings being confused and perhaps lost in this ever-changing world.