It has been a week of movie sneak previews for me.
American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, has caused a bit of a stir, with most of the national film critics awarding it 3, 4 and even 5 stars for her latest offering. And of course, it picked up the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. Both of her earlier films, Red Road and Fish Tank were excellent.
This new one propels the viewer up close and personal amidst a wild group of late teen and twenty-something nomads as they travel across the midwest of the US selling magazine subscriptions. They invent spurious stories to get sales from the potential customers.
As in her earlier films, Arnold has assembled a cast of non-actors to known and relatively unknown ones. Working along Loachian lines she collaborates closely with her cast to engender a truthfulness in the performance. This is achieved by incorporating a lot of improvisation and chance encounters. Arnold has worked again with her favourite cinemaphotographer, Robbie Ryan who, like Emmanuel Lubezki, has a wonderful fluidity in shooting, capturing seemingly unimportant random moments of great beauty.
Although the film is ostensibly a road movie set against the wide open spaces of Texas, Arnold has chosen to use the classic academy aspect ratio format. As the film progressed I realised that she is obsessed with the minutiae of all things, a wasp hovering on a window, ants scurrying over leftover food, leaves dripping with water, wind undulating long grass, in the same way that Terence Mallick and Andrei Tarkovsky have used these natural elements, and the restricted viewing format helps to heighten this aspect .
The story is seen through the eyes of Star (Sasha Lane), a disenfranchised teenager who on a whim decides to join the bunch of misfit magazine sellers to crisscross the midwest in a minibus. As the viewer, you are placed alongside them in the claustrophobic interior as they party, drink, sing, get high and sleep, to the never ending throb of hip-hop. As they are dropped off in various neighbourhoods to sell magazine subscriptions, we begin to view the stark contrast of American society, from the affluent middle class, with their manicured water sprinkled lawns, to the impoverished shack living, one parent families. Star is deeply affected by the contrast and spends some of her earned money stocking up the refrigerator of a hopeless cocaine-addicted mother, whose young children are left to fend for themselves on empty stomachs.
One of the only redeeming people in the whole film was an old time trucker who gives Star a lift. His cab is decorated with photographs of his family and grandchildren. He chats to Star in a warm and friendly manner. He drops her off at the roadside and Star glances at the side of the truck as she passes. We see cattle looking out through the wooden bars. Star heads off through the long grass and at a low angle her boots push through the blades. She looks down at her boots and wretches. We now see tick bubbling blood squelching up. Star screams and runs, over her shoulder we see trucks lining up in the distance at what is clearly an industrial abattoir. It was a horrid moment.
Arnold makes many political observations during the course of the film, among them, the sexualisation of children. In a wealthy area, along with her sales trainer, Jake (Shia LaBeoufouf), they are attempting to sell to a rather strait-laced mother whose young daughter is having a birthday party and can be seen through patio window dancing by the pool with friends. Star takes exception to Jake's lies in trying to sell to the woman and swears at him. The woman takes exception and asks them both to leave, "This is a God-fearing house" she says. Star points to her daughter and friends gyrating in a highly sexualised way by the pool and accuses her of being a hypocrite. The cumulative effect of the vignettes during the course of the film paint a grim picture of America.
At 2 hours 40 minutes long I have to admit it is a bit of a struggle to sit through. 30 minutes could have easy been cut, without losing the story. Sometimes directors fall in love with everything that has been shot and can't bear to jettison a single frame.
Here is the trailer.