It is only after watching Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) that you realise how much this sublime, beautiful film has had a hold on you from start to thrilling finish. With Arnold’s poetic direction and entrancing cinematography, this isn’t just a film you watch – it’s something you experience alongside every step the characters take. And what a ride that experience is...
A hypnotic road trip movie, this is also a film built on a pleasing sense of chaos, both in the plot and the free, almost guerrilla-style filmmaking approach that Arnold favours. Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan let the camera roll, taking in the action rather than dictating it, the cast of mostly unprofessional teen actors joking, drinking, bickering and fighting just as they would in real life. It is this method that gives the film an exciting, raw edge in which anything and everything could (and often does) happen to the reckless group on their travels.
Acting as our eyes into this mad, energetic world is Star, a poor Texan girl with a difficult (to say the least) life. Played with emotional maturity by the incredible Sasha Lane – another first-time actor who absolutely embodies the part – Star finds herself drawn into the group’s lifestyle after a chance meeting with Jake (Shia LaBeouf in another intense, standout role). Their eyes meet and soon he’s asking her to join their crew as they travel across America to sell magazine subscriptions to rich folks. With the promise of money and a handsome boy asking, how can she refuse?
It is this initial meeting scene that also makes American Honey impossible not to fall in love with, a simple yet wonderful scene brought to joyous life by the strains of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, Jake and his crew dancing wildly to the tune while Star looks on in amazement. It is just one of many moments throughout in which the music becomes another character, a similar method Arnold used in Fish Tank (2009), in which some of the songs were even used to convey the whole message behind the film (with Nas’s ‘Life’s a Bitch’ at the conclusion speaking volumes without the characters ever saying anything). Arnold uses music in American Honey to also expand on the narrative or often just to let scenes breathe, pulling us into a moment so we are right there alongside the kids, whether they are partying or simply listening to rap music to pump themselves up before a working day. Indeed while this particular music is used by Arnold to show them united as a team, she also seems to be using it as a comment on the kids own backgrounds, with the lyrics about wealth or success almost mocking them in juxtaposition to their own poor, broken lives.
The theme of rich versus poor is actually what drives the film, Arnold directly comparing the lives of Star and the other kids to the wealthy families they visit door to door. Arnold lifts the lid on the underbelly of America (just as she did to the UK in Fish Tank and Red Road (2006)), exploring the causes behind the wealth divide and showing what people don’t want to see – desolate towns and families often made poorer because of drugs, a background Star knows only too well. At one point a trucker asks her what her dreams are and she doesn’t know how to reply. “No-one’s ever asked me that before” she replies in confusion. No-one has thought to – the life of a country girl from a dirt-poor, broken family doesn’t have much promise to it...
And yet for all this, Arnold takes a completely different approach to what you would expect when portraying these American towns, her lens finding the unexpected beauty amongst the dirt. Yes, the bleakness is often there, Ryan’s cinematography conveying the stifling heat and the hidden horrors of these rough towns. However it also captures the heartening things we might miss if we don’t look properly, especially the magnificence of nature. Arnold often shows Star herself surrounded by nature – whether lying in the grass, or trying to rescue insects who are drowning in a swimming pool or stuck indoors – a girl who understands all too well what it’s like to be trapped by your surroundings, or simply just ignored.
With a strangely uplifting ending, American Honey will ensure you go out on a high, energy surging in your veins and the soundtrack still pumping in your ears. The unrehearsed performances along with Arnold’s loose direction and kinetic camerawork make this a genuinely thrilling piece of reality cinema, as well as a clever commentary on the rich-poor divide and the myth of the American dream.