A Review of American Honey, Directed by Andrea Arnold
"I’m not going to make an apology for the length. I don’t even mind if people go to the toilet in the middle of it. It’s fine’.
It's true, you could walk out for five minutes and not be any worse off. There isn’t really a plot. You would struggle to piece together a beginning, middle, and end, because it all blurs into one long journey, a journey that, far from thinking was too long, I never wanted to finish.
If you’re looking for easy and familiar gratification, with a tangible plot to keep you interested, don’t bother. This film requires a degree of patience. It’s quiet and subtle; there may be no plot, but that means there’s no clutter either. It’s crystalized and straightforward. The film has the feel of an ‘American Dream’ drama, but it’s far less about pursuit than it is about escape. It’s about embracing freedom. The characters are all unshackled from obligations and oppression, and the film carries that sense of openness with a powerful and uplifting simplicity.
This is where most directors would let you down. They would ruin the vision with complications, hopes, dreams, fears and backstories. Andrea Arnold sustains the simplicity. We follow Star (Sasha Lane) from the beginning of the film to the end, and there are no interruptions, no sub-plots or detours. We meet her scavenging a vacuum packed raw chicken out of a dumpster, with two white children she is taking care of. We don’t know anything else. She comes home to a man, maybe her boyfriend, maybe her husband, maybe the father of the children. She leaves the kids with a woman. It’s the kids’ mother. We’re not ‘left in the dark’ or confused. These things are necessary fragments to give background to Star’s escape, but to spin off into explanations would inevitably dilute our focus. There’s no ‘who’s that?’, ‘oh, that’s the cousin’s third wife’s Goddaughter’. That’s simply a trick pulled by lesser filmmakers who bombard us with obscurity to substantiate entertainment, because they lack the ability or desire to make meaningful stuff. Andrea Arnold doesn’t care, and neither do we.
When there’s less clutter, there’s less to hide behind; but American Honey doesn’t fail to grab the imagination. The cinematography is powerful enough to carry you along the film-world. There is something remarkably unencumbered about the style. It’s often first person, and even when it’s not, you sometimes feel as if it may be, because the angles are so cleverly constructed that you feel close to the action at all times—as if you are watching the action through human eyes, even if not the characters’. In this mode of filming, you’ll find memories coming back effortlessly; but more importantly, American Honey has the feel of memory. It’s familiar and close, and strangely personal. You will feel embedded in its world from the outset.
When people talk too much about a film’s cinematography, I begin to worry. Like ‘The Revenant’. People went on about the cinematography because the film was so damn dull. But here, the craft is executed with purpose. This indie filming style can so easily become mundane. But Robbie Ryan tantalises the fantasy by making things more beautiful than they are; it is beauty borne from reality, and reality made more beautiful by a master of his craft. You’ll constantly be refreshed with innovative and ingenious perspectives, which effect new reactions and interpretations. Like when Jake and Star encounter in the car park of a department store, there’s a moment where the camera follows only their feet, because as they scrape and tease across the floor, they represent more than anything else could.
The result of all this is that we have a clear, uplifting reimagining of the American Dream. All Star and Jake want is a place in the woods. It’s reminiscent of ‘Of Mice and Men’, and there is some of that brutality present: they work long hours, selling crap no one can afford to people who don’t want it, giving the profits to their boss, while the worst performers are punished with fist fights and humiliation. But the capitalist dystopia takes a back seat. Life is more important.
Star asks Jake: ‘Do you have any dreams?’ He replies: ‘Like – future dreams?’
And that is the single, defining difference of this film. The characters have dreams, but they are postponed. They are dreams to have and attend to down the line. They are future dreams. For now, they are happy. They are too young and too energetic to care. They do what they want and rarely have to answer to anyone; they are impoverished and lost, but they are also free, and that makes all the difference.
Written by Charlie Child, a contributor to Arteviste.