Andrea Arnold’s films are unique and bold, singularly realized. Heavy on story, emotion, and feeling; void of plot and convention. Her latest, the captivating epic, American Honey, dutifully follows suit with Arnold’s style. And thank God. There’s no one currently making movies the way Andrea Arnold makes them. Every time she releases a film, she subsequently breathes life into the medium. Hyperbolic praise, perhaps, but truth be told, certainly.
The group is made up of lively, misfit kids, many under the age of 18. They bottle drink cheap vodka and share joints before work. They chain smoke cigarettes, eat gas station food, play fight, hook up, crash in motels. They get by. It’s a hard life, but, we suspect, one easier than they’re used to. Some kids stand out. In addition to Star, there’s the group’s assumed hero, Jake (Shia LaBeouf, a radiant portrait of emotional contradiction), who Star takes a liking to. And the group’s hardass boss, Krystal (Riley Keough, on fire following her work on the best television show of the year, The Girlfriend Experience).
Watching American Honey is a unique experience, because Arnold is so expert at blurring reality and film. There is only one stylized shot in the whole film (a slow motion shot of Star jumping in a pool), all of the songs are diegetic (they originate from sources on the screen – car radios, TVs, stereos), and the majority of the film’s stars are virtual unknowns (save LaBeouf, Keough, and a cameo from a great character actor).
American Honey was shot with a minimal crew utilizing handheld cameras and natural light. There’s no waiting for hours between shot set ups on an Arnold set. Instead, Arnold and her cast use that extra time to capture footage. A lot of it is scripted, much of it is improvised. The fact that you can’t tell the difference is a testament to Arnold’s writing and the raw talent of her actors.
The prospect of a new Andrea Arnold film is extremely exciting. She takes a while between films (her last feature, Wuthering Heights, came out in 2011), delicately prepping the material and fine-tuning her eclectic cast. I carry a lot of expectations with me into an Arnold film (her 2009 feature, Fish Tank, is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen), and something as big and beautiful as American Honey certainly did not disappoint. Though, admittedly, the film is a hard sell for non-Arnold loyalists. In addition to its lack of known talent, the film is 2 hours and 43 minutes long, takes place in lost Midwest locations (Muskogee, Oklahoma; Mission Hills, Kansas; Grand Island, Nebraska; etc.), and is shot in Arnold’s preferred 4:3 aspect ratio.
Arnold’s choice of aspect ratio is important. What 4:3 does is essentially turn the screen into a square, like and old television. Today, we’re used to wide rectangular aspect ratios that display as much frame as possible. But, according to Arnold, the 4:3 ratio gives films a specific intimacy that widescreen lacks. “I think I like 4:3 because my films are mostly about one person,” Arnold has said. “I’m following that one person and I’m keen on that one person. It’s a very respectful and beautiful frame for one person.”
It’s true, watching American Honey (or Fish Tank, or Wuthering Heights), the square ratio traps us in the plight of the main female character on screen. It’s a courageous, striking choice, one that filmmakers rarely make any more for the duration of their movies.
You’ll have to forgive me. I haven’t done a thorough job explaining what American Honey is about, and the arcs of the characters in it. I’d rather have you discover that for yourself. But by way of enticement, I’ll leave you with a description of one sequence from the film, which is the best scene I’ve witnessed from a movie in 2016.
As American Honey approaches its second hour, Star and the rest of the girls are being driven in a van by Krystal, who is about to drop them off to begin the day’s work. As motivation for the day, Krystal starts playing Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” The song is a sort of anthem for the crew, and when they hear it, they get amped. As the song blares, Star sings along and smiles. For the first time in the film, Star looks content, at peace with her place in the world. Seeing this, I found myself overcome with emotion, and began to cry. I wondered how long Star’s peace would last. And if she’d ever get to feel it again. A
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the Directors: Andrea Arnold
the Directors: Andrea Arnold