2016. Directed by Andrea Arnold.
Andrea Arnold’s masterpiece, American Honey, is not only the Millennial anthem, it is one of the most important films of the decade. Saturated with candy wrapper visuals, a cacophony of auto-tuned hip hop, and massive sexual appeal, American Honey is the story of the underprivileged side of a lost demographic, an America without purpose masquerading as road trip revelry. Using blistering symbolism, relevant characterizations. and brutal audacity, this is one of a handful of films that defines a generation.
Star is a teenager who joins a rag tag tribe of lost souls caravanning across America selling magazine subscriptions. As she becomes inundated in a culture of erotic mores, drug abuse, and exploitation, Star finds love, hope, and a complacent sense of self.
Arnold’s script is both a sordid coming of age tale and a terrifying reflection on the waywardness of youth in distress. Borrowing classic elements from Beat poetry and Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us and then transfusing them with a counterfeit understanding of the American Dream, the result is a world in which it’s always apparent that something is very wrong and its characters could care less. The group’s mammoth transport, a white passenger van becomes a surrogate mobile coffee house, eschewing politics and philosophy in favor of tattooed mythology and marijuana laced diatribes. You can almost feel the ghost of Kerouac looming over the proceedings, encouraged by the rebellion and yet saddened by the lack of purpose, with the central ensemble travelling endless roads without a physical or spiritual destination.
Arnold picked the majority of the cast by interviewing drunk teenagers and loners while prowling spring break locations. Sasha Lane was chosen to lead as Star, with her intricate performance being memorable for her ability to balance sexual mystique, danger, and conviction all while battling the uncertainties of adult life. She’s supported by Shia LeBeouf, who gives the performance of his career as Star’s forbidden lover, Jack. This is a story about the forgotten, and LeBeouf throws his soul into his portrayal, using the hardships of his career to show Jack as a hungry street hustler whose armor of cool protects a lonely and restless heart desperate for an escape, a errant Peter Pan for a social media Neverland . His chemistry with Lane is scorching, with some of the most raw and poignant love scenes ever filmed. It’s easy to see how these two hearts find one another, as they both yearn for more amidst the reefer smoke, and yet, submit to a continual charade of hard partying and felonious behaviors as a welcome distraction from the world outside the van.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is poetically unhinged. Filmed in 4:3 ratio, without widescreen, the film is presented as if the viewer is watching the film on their cell phone, an accusatory detail that also keeps the action uncomfortably close, simulating the idea that these neglected children are everywhere in the land of the free and exorbitantly rich. Despite the framing choice, there are some remarkable shots of the beautiful Oklahoma landscape, filled with colorful wildlife and golden sunsets. These images are opposed by their urban counterparts, with murky puddles and discarded canines populating the dingy motel underground in which Star is imprisoned. One of the most beautiful sequences involves a lakeside bonfire with the kids jumping across the flames in true Lost Boys fashion, with the actors’ joys and fears intermingling into a hive mind of reckless euphoria.
The soundtrack is an MP3 onslaught of country and hip hop, and each song’s timing is perfectly chosen, almost always generating from a native source in the film, keeping everything within the personified turbulence. Running at a colossal 163 minutes, American Honey takes its time with what it has to say, using the musical cues to highlight the cosmetic approach used to hook the kids into an indentured life, using the promise of tangible wealth as a carrot to cyclical servitude. This is a generation who have been constantly reminded about the greatness that came before them. They have no cause to unify them except for the intoxicated promises of their superiors, empowering them with a larger than life bravado. There are several cringe worthy sequences in which characters put themselves into peril, either by getting into a stranger’s car or by going to a place they shouldn’t, and it’s difficult to tell if the characters truly believe their untouchable, or (more likely) that they just don’t care.
In limited release currently, and hopefully heading to Video on Demand soon, American Honey is one of the best films of the year. Arnold’s cautious manifesto takes a concept that could have been overshadowed with violence and cynicism and instead presents it as a dysfunctional love story on the forgotten back roads of America. Featuring tattooed outcasts who are forced to carve out their own identities in a transient community of grifters, most accept this condition as a natural consequence of their place in the financial order. What’s more terrifying than the complete submission of the wayward sons and daughters is that those who understand that the game is rigged would rather keep playing on the off chance that they might luck into some part of an American Dream that left them in the dust long ago. A hypnotic affliction rather than a traditional movie going experience, American Honey mutates Charles Peguy’s famous quote into something more personal, perfectly summarizing its intent:
America belongs to no one.
Highly. Highly Recommend.