Andrea Arnold is only four films into her feature filmmaking career, but she’s already developed as distinct a style of any established auteur. Watching her latest, American Honey, you can still see stylistic and thematic connections to Wasp, the 2003 Oscar winning short film that put her on the map. While some may see this as a lack of growth, a more positive interpretation would be consistency.
Arnold’s first film shot in America, she’s still focussing on people below the poverty line who are forced to eek out an existence and find happiness wherever it may exist. We open with 18 year old Star dumpster diving to feed two kids whom we soon learn aren’t even hers before going “home” to some gropey dude. It’s no surprise that it doesn’t doesn’t take much more than a few bodyrolls to a Rihanna song in Walmart for Shia LeBeouf’s rat tailed Jake to woo Star away from this life and join their ragtag crew of travelling magazine salesmen.
The group zigzags around the midwest like a travelling rock band, spending most of their time in a large van sipping liquor, hitting bongs, and hacking darts. The party is occasionally interrupted by some feeble attempts to sell magazine subscriptions (which may or may not be legit). As the “Top Seller” Jake takes Star under his wing, it’s not long before the two are making out on someone’s lawn like dogs in heat. This is actually a perfect role for LeBeouf, with just the right mix of skeez and some weirdo, bad boy charm, but not as much as he thinks. It’s a role that he could probably pull off without a script, as we get the sense that this character is probably as close to the real Shia as he’s ever played. He said as much in a Cannes interview, “Jake is me.” He literally threw himself into the role when he injured himself putting is head through window, a scene that apparently didn’t make the cut. The fact that he barely appears to be acting (I assure you this is a compliment, albeit a slightly backhanded one) helps LeBeouf blend in with a cast of primarily non actors.
Andrea Arnold remains faithful to the 4:3 aspect ratio, which works better here than it did in Wuthering Heights, particularly since she favours close ups. You still can’t help but feel like you’re missing out anytime she does open it up to a nice wide shot during magic hour. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does his part once again to create that Arnold feeling, capturing the interactions with the precision of a documentary filmmaker and the sensitivity of a poet.
Proving once again that it’s often an outsider’s eye that has the greatest insight into a subculture, Arnold presents a different America, one that’s dangerous and scary but also youthful and fun. She uses music a lot to illustrate the diversity of influences, although this diversity isn’t reflected in the cast for some reason.
At almost 2 hours and 45 minutes, American Honey is certainly lumbering for its relatively concentrated tale. At this length, it could have found time for more development of the supporting characters, or even a greater arc for Star. In the end it’s an odyssey that doesn’t really go anywhere, but at least there’s some sex, drugs and rock and roll on the journey.
Sunday Sept. 11, 5:15pm @ Ryerson
Monday, Sept. 12 9:00pm @ Scotiabank 12