ANDREA ARNOLD'S "AMERICAN HONEY" IS A REBELLIOUS INDIE MASTERPIECE
This film had me from the get go. The first thing I thought was 'who the hell is Andrea Arnold and where has she been all my life?' She's my kind of filmmaker baby…. While we’ve seen our fair share of films about white privileged kids “finding themselves” on the road; Arnold has created something else. She provides an iconic insight into the lives of under-represented millennials in post GFC America.
We meet Star (Sasha Lane) trawling for food in a dumpster with her younger half siblings. We experience a rather horrifying but luckily brief snippet into her miserable and abusive home life. Cue Rihanna's "We Found Love" blasting in K-Mart (a hopeless place) and Star quickly abandons her life and joins a crew of drop kicks to discover America's south and mid-west. It is an exhilarating lifestyle for the kids who haven’t seen much outside the bounds of their small towns.
They travel the country in a white van trying to sell out-dated, redundant magazine subscriptions from door to door. The tunes going off in that van are review worthy - Ugh, if you don't care for good cinema, go along for the soundtrack alone… Their boss Krystal (Riley Keough- Elvis Presley's granddaughter!!!) pockets a solid profit, and the rest of their salary fuels their escapades. Jake is the leader of a mag crew and depicts the volatile and transient personality you’d expect from LaBeouf. Much like their futures, the film runs without a plot. The result is nothing short of exhilarating.
Arnold has only directed four films in ten years, so it is clear she invests a lot of time and effort into the authenticity of the films she creates. She travelled around the country with “mag crews” and cast the film with non-professional actors she met during her journey, including Lane. Her encounters with potential buyers bordered on dangerous, but provide for an accurate depiction of the ups and downs of wandering youth. The emotional rollercoaster enhances the communal and familial feeling they have created; something they have all badly needed. Action and music is the centrepiece for the film and when there is dialogue, it is mostly improvised. When the group are happy they will dance, corroborate and sing at the top of their lungs. Fun fact: Arnold actually plays the music during production, allowing the cast to rap and sing over the music.
This review wouldn’t be complete without a comparison to Harmony Korine's chaotic Spring Breakers. The James Franco dominated spectacle can be juxtaposed with Arnold's female gaze. Despite casting LaBeouf (equally gorgeous), the females in this film have an electric presence. Notwithstanding this, the comradery and tomfoolery in both films honestly depict the movement of youth and the transient nature of post GFC America. Both filmmakers employ a range of techniques to capture a sense of wild emotion.
The film’s intense understanding of the environment in which it is shot is very much deliberate. The fantastic cinematography only enhances this sensory spectacle. Arnold explores the naturalism of the southern states and the mid-west effortlessly. Spiders, flies, bears, turtles, and bugs feature throughout the three-hour film. Star’s fixation on preserving natural life provides for a rich performance. Apart from this, there were a number of characters and themes which went relatively unexplored. This was perhaps one of Arnold's techniques to keep things simple and focus our attention on the film's nature-based motifs. A prime example is Star's younger brother's half hour attack on a glad-wrapped chicken on the kitchen floor.
This isn't your typical film about American youth culture. This is a film with an intense understanding of the environment it’s exploring. The director captures the hazy, irresponsible days of American youth in the most gritty and grungy way possible. I can only think of my experience watching Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. Alas, it was bold, and Arnold has made an abrasive statement about life on the outskirts of society. Something that hasn't been done in a long time. Yet it was her unwavering attention to detail that made it one of the best films of 2016 for me. It will percolate in your mind for months to come.