Thursday, October 6, 2016

American Honey

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.

American Honey is about Star (Sasha Lane, in an astonishing debut performance), an 18-year-old with a heavy heart and a white-trash upbringing. Star is lost. She’s taking care of kids who aren’t hers, digging food out of dumpsters to survive. When her boyfriend drunkenly demands an impromptu dance in the living room, Star recoils in his arms and cries. What hell has this poor girl endured? Star senses a chance for a new start, and she flees. She joins a group of rowdy kids who make a living selling magazines door-to-door. “People don’t give a shit about magazines,” one kid dryly notes. “We’re not selling magazines, we’re selling ourselves.” To do this, the kids make up stories to would-be customers. I’m an impoverished youth looking to put myself through school, My school needs funds to build a new cafeteria, My church needs renovations, and on and on.

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

18 comments:

  1. I’m quite excited for this. Reading your description of that scene with the Calvin Harris hit, it made me imagine the whole feeling, and I have a soft spot for that kind of lost characters. Actually, I’m writing a story about a young female character who leads a pretty “miserable” life in the Midwest. I love Arnold films too. Kate Dickie’s performance totally devastated me in Red Road. And I really like her use of 4:3. On Fish Tank, I felt like I was looking into the life of someone through a window. I liked Wuthering Heights too. The way she bravely approached a classic made me feel like she stripped down Brontë’s words and make the story more relatable and universal. She captured the scenery perfectly even using that ratio. You could almost breathe the air of the raw and inhospitable English moors where the family lived. As much as I was expecting to see Kaya Scodelario (as I loved her in Skins), I liked better the first half though; the younger actors were terrific. You’ve mentioned that the leading girl has made her debut here, in American Honey, and I also read about it when they premiered it at Cannes. I hope she gets more roles in the future, if she was that good, because as much as I liked Katie Jarvis’ performance in Fish Tank, sadly, she hasn’t done much since then. I don’t know if it’s a personal choice to stay out of the film industry, but I think it’s such a pity as she had a lot of potential. Fassbender was terrific there too, and Harry Treadaway didn’t have much screen-time, but he’s another favorite of mine. Oh and I can’t wait to see Riley Keough on that TV show you’ve mentioned.
    Talking about female directors, I recently watched two films directed by women, Sky and For Ellen. I don’t know if you’ve watched them, they were not especially awesome, but both of them had interesting things and I enjoyed them. Oh and I finally watched Sicario and liked it a lot. Can’t believe Benicio del Toro didn’t get more recognition and by that I mean awards (I don’t know why that surprises me, ‘cause they tend to disappoint me) because that was one hell of a performance! I also watched Macbeth and that actually disappointed me. I didn’t even feel engaged by Cotillard and Fassbender’s (and you know I love him as much as you do) performances. Maybe it’s because Macbeth is one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare alongside Hamlet (which to me it’s his best) and I felt like Kurzel didn’t managed to adapt it well. It had a Valhalla Rising vibe in some scenes, which I liked, but it lacked the spookiness of the play, the plot got a bit messy and I didn’t feel the characters’ motivations as you feel them on the play. I guess it’s just not easy to adapt Shakespeare.

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    1. It is a shame that Jarvis didn't act in anything else, but I suppose a life in the spotlight isn't for everyone. It looks like Lane has already booked more acting gigs, which is great.

      I haven't seen Sky or For Ellen, but your recommendation is certainly enough for me to give them a watch. I liked Macbeth a little more than you, but I hear what you're saying. I thought it was visually astounding but emotionally a little empty. I still loved watching those two on screen together though.

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  2. I saw a trailer for this a while back and thought it might be something I'd enjoy. I loved Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights is in my Netflix queue. I had no idea it has such a hefty run time though. That surprises me.

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    1. I promise the run time flys by. I could've kept watching for 3 more hours. Plus, it won't really work against the film if you watch it in 2 or 3 sittings. Not ideal, but that could make it more manageable, you know?

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  3. I'm really looking forward to this one, and I'm constantly checking to see when it hits theaters in my area. From reading your review, it sounds like some seriously unique filmmaking :) Great review!!

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    1. Thanks! I'm excited for it to come your way. I absolutely loved it. Be curious to hear your thoughts!

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  4. I so want to see this as I'm a fan of Andrea Arnold's work and I really love what she does as I've been waiting for this film for more than a year since its announcement.

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    1. I can't wait for you to see it and share your thoughts. I think you're really going to appreciate it.

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  5. I can't wait to see this! Andrea Arnold is terrific.

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    1. She's sooo good, and this is some of her best work yet. Very interested to hear your thoughts!

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  6. I've yet to see any of her work, but I'm looking forward to. I guess Fish Tank is a good place to start!

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    1. Fish Tank is a masterpiece, genuinely one of my favorite films of all time. It's haunting and unique. And Michael Fassbender is astonishing in it.

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  7. Great review! American Honey has been one of my most-anticipated movies of the year. I'm even more excited to see this now. :)

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    1. Thanks! I hope it comes your way, it's definitely one worth seeking out!

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  8. I do agree that the film is a tricky sell due to its 3-hour running time and its cast being mostly made up of unknowns. But I would still see it regardless. I was a big fan of Arnold's Fish Tank.

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    1. It'd make for a great double feature with Fish Tank. Totally similar in style and execution. I hope you can see it soon!

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  9. Oh my god, your review's got me more excited for this movie now. Hopefully this will release in my part of the UK. Miss Arnold's sure kept me waiting for this, I have legit been keeping an eye out for this since it was announced and am so happy with the buzz it's gotten. Now, let's just hope that it does nicely at the lovely Box Office.

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    1. I'm so happy my review could make you more excited! I also hope it does well financially, because then it will spread to more theaters and be seen by more people. Everyone should see this!

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