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

 

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