AMERICAN HONEY (UK/USA 2015) ****
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Review by Gilbert Seah
The fifth film and fourth feature (I have seen every one of her films) sees British director Andrea Arnold covering similar material in a total different setting. All her films have a disgruntled female as the central character often living a life in the outskirts of a city, one that the protagonist strives to get out of and make something of herself. Her first short, WASP, had a middle-aged woman go to her ex-husband’s home to beat up his woman and take her children out. She ends up leaving her children outside a pub while she goes in for a drink hoping to pick up a man. Her next two films RED ROAD and FISH TANK were hard hitting dramas, both of which were excellent, but her last film, a modern adaptation of WUTHERING HEIGHTS did not work and was plain awful. Her new film AMERICAN HONEY, that premiered at Cannes (that also won her the Jury Prize) is her first film set in America, about a 18-year old teenager, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane who was pick up from a beach by Arnold for a screen test) following a crew of hard-partying teenagers criss-crossing the Midwest while working as travelling magazine salesmen.
Star leaves her mother and her siblings, after being enticed by Jake (Shia Labeouf) who she meets at Walmart to work as a magazine sales crew. The crew is a hilarious gang of misfits: slugging hard liquor in the backs of vans, crashing in rundown motels, and selling fraudulent magazine subscriptions. Star and Jake are ecstatic in each other’s company. They begin dreaming of a house and family to call their own. But their relationship offends the crew’s queen bee, Krystal (Riley Keough).
Arnold knows how to film confrontation – the film’s best scenes are the confrontations between Star and Krystal.
One can see the fascination America has for British director Arnold. She shoots the lead characters first meeting at an American icon – a Walmart. Arnold loves the landscape of Kansas City and the barren landscapes that the van passes during their sale trips. Her verite style can be seen in the film’s loose plot and her frequent use of the hand-held camera.
Arnold is also fascinated by insects as revealed in many of the film’s scenes. Star is seen twice saving insects, a bee from a window and a ladybug from drowning in a lake. A pretty butterfly is also filmed while Sasha falls in a bog in another scene.
But the film has its English roots. The gang is immediately reminiscent of the gang of pickpocket and thieves in Dickens’s OLIVER TWIST. The character Krystal is a cross between Fagin and Bill Sykes. But redemption here, unlike in the Dickens story is up to Star herself, with no one to help. It is a hard life on the American road, even for veteran salesman Jake who Krystal finally gets bored with as a sex object.
` The film’s soundtrack varies from E-40 to Rihanna to Bruce Springsteen with the song AMERICAN HONEY used in the soundtrack at the end of the film. Star and Jake also meet to the dance beats of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s 2011 smash “We Found Love”.
This is Arnold’s longest film, running at 2 and a half hours, an epic opus to life of American youth living on the outskirts, as seen by a Brit.
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