American Honey - Cannes Film Festival 2016 Review
It’d be fair to call British filmmaker Andrea Arnold a Cannes favourite. She has won its Jury Prize twice before, for her features Red Road and Fish Tank. She returns this year with the divisive American Honey, her first film to be set in the US. The story of Star (Sasha Lane), a teenager who joins a group of magazine subscription sellers has dramatically split opinion at the festival. Some have hailed it as a masterpiece; others as lengthy (it stands at 2h42mins of running time) and vain. American Honey is in fact a superb technical achievement; its cinematography is nothing short of breath-taking. It is also beautifully acted, with Lane and Shia LaBeouf giving stand-out performances. Yet it is also repetitive, and lacks emotional pull.
We meet eighteen-year-old Star as she goes through the bins, searching for usable food, with two young children. They’re not hers, but her older boyfriend’s (or creepy uncle's?). She’s desperate to get out, and when she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his group at a Wal-Mart, she takes up their offer to join them. They’re approximately twenty, twenty-somethings travelling around the country in a mini-van, staying at roadside motels, and going door to door selling the subscriptions. They lie and sometimes steal. Their performance is followed closely by exacting manager Krystal (Riley Keough) who seems to do little other than organise their itinerary and shop for clothes.
Lane, who was discovered by Arnold, is stunning as the lively, defiant Star. She’s entirely lost in her life, yet convincingly holds on to basic principles: kindness to strangers as well as honesty - she shows disgust for her companions’ sales-driven lies. She has real chemistry with LaBeouf, who plays her love interest. The latter makes a persuasively ambiguous Jake: cheerfully attentive to Star, we never quite know whether his behaviour is genuine, or in the pursuit of profit. Much of the rest of the cast are non-professional actors, many of whom have worked similar magazine subscription groups in real life. Their mad comradeship feels authentic. Though we really see most of it in the background: they’re under-utilised. Star either mainly interacts with Jake or Krystal.
What is most frustrating about this is that Star’s interactions with the two other characters are rather unvaryig. She and Krystal face off three to four times in the latter’s hotel room. The underlying tension is all about Jake, though on the surface the conversation is usually about money. In each of theses scenes, Arnold makes similar shots, lingering over Krystal’s strewn-about clothes, the men walking about in her room, and the character’s skimpy outfits. After the first time, the point feels belaboured.
It is much the same with Jake; he and Star have an on-going flirtation, which develops into something more. Then the relationship stalls, alternating between sulks, passionate sex, and intimate confessions. Again, after a cycle of these, the dynamic becomes tedious. Overall, there is no real narrative drive; though this wouldn't be so much of a problem if the film's episodic structure wasn't so repetitive.
By examining this young, deprived and rebellious sub-culture of American life, Arnold seems to be attempting to capture something of the spirit of the country as a whole. There are glimpses of the United States’ enterprising culture; its bright and promising summery landscapes; its booming industries; its stark contrasts between poverty and wealth. However, here again things seem forced. There are too many blue-sky scenes, in which characters look out of their van windows and sing along to meaningful music; or stand in convertibles, or on the roof of cars, and stretch out their arms in an expression of freedom. It’s meant to make us feel something deep, and it’s gorgeously shot, but it’s also all a bit cliché. After what feels like the tenth on-the-road karaoke session, impatience gives way to irritation.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is truly excellent. Shot in 1:1 aspect ratio, it showcases lush, bright frames, ingenious use of natural light, and in close-ups captures actors’ expressions with real delicacy. Arnold has great inventive moments too - a scene taking place in a car by the light of a burning plume in an oil field, for instance, works perfectly. The soundtrack is a pleasing selection, even if indeed it at times makes the film look like one long music video.
American Honey should really have been an hour shorter, with a little tighter plotting, a more stirring ending. As it is now, it’s real pity that Arnold’s good stuff gets lost in what is really too much of it.
Marion Koob is The Digital Fix’s Cinema Editor. She will be tweeting throughout the festival @marionkoob.