Andrea Arnold has a deserved reputation as a filmmaker who tackles the grimmest and most distressing of scenarios through her work; never shying away from the violence, neglect and reality that might be involved. From the dread that builds in her short film Wasp, to the bleak visual nastiness of Red Road to the frank sexual activity found in Fishtank, Arnold knows how to shock, engage and impact upon her audience. Her 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights was no exception – a strong and artistic envisioning of Emily Bronte’s classic. Arnold’s work is also deeply routed in British social realism, arriving on the scene at a similar time to Shane Meadows and Lynn Ramsay, all pioneers of a new and somewhat reminiscent wave of UK film-making. All this considered, it’s not surprising that her America debut American Honey has been highly anticipated. Winner of the Jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, American Honey follows Star, a girl on the cusp of womanhood who escapes an abusive step-father and life of poverty by taking to the road with a group of energetic strangers and free spirits. The group travel the country in a crowded minivan, selling magazines by any means necessary and spending the remainder of their time getting drunk and high. Captivated by one of the group’s leaders, Star agrees to join this collection of young misfits on a confusing and intense journey across the USA. Star and team leader Jake partake in a muddled and ferocious affair with neither one of them really knowing where the other truly stands. Arnold follows her characters and lets the performances speak more than the dialogue – most of which is either superficial or simply non-existent.
In many ways American Honey is a classic road movie with a killer, slightly hipster, soundtrack by its side. There are several moments of wonder to be found here but these are sadly counteracted by the film’s self indulgent running time of 166 minutes and too many unexplained moments. Somewhere between its limited plot and its sweeping shots of the surrounding landscape American Honey loses its way. It is the weakest of Arnold’s films to date but that’s not to say that Arnold’s migration to America hasn’t been a success. This is a film alive with an American spirit, exploring an impoverished American culture we’re not used to seeing on screen. American Honey‘s two central performances provide the film’s substance and maintained my engagement long after the story had failed to. Shia LaBeouf is right at home as the charismatic and slightly odd Jake, turning in an on point performance. Sasha Lane is the diamond in the rough. Discovered and cast whilst on spring break in Florida, she’s on screen for the first time and what an entrance it is. Her performance is deeply internal but she manages to express it externally and effortlessly. She’s a revelation and an actor to really get excited about. Beautifully shot and full of nice ideas, American Honey is just too long and too confused for its own good. Still, a film with a performance like this at its centre should definitely be given some attention. Despite the film’s frustrating narcissism, Sasha Lane emerges as its saving grace. Also, look out for the fabulous return of Arielle Holmes.
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