By Adam Ray Palmer
Today’s review is of the BIFA-nominated smash American Honey. I’ve had two chances to see this film over the past few months but missed it… good job Phoenix cinema are on hand to save me!
American Honey is written and directed by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold and stars debutant Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and the king of rock n roll’s granddaughter Riley Keough.
With a mammoth runtime of 164 minutes, could Andrea strike gold again with this bold tale?
This is a welcomed return for Andrea Arnold who has been away from the industry for five years. Arnold’s last big screen movie was Wuthering Heights in 2011. Now over 1500 days later, Andrea returns with a very different film to the period drama.
American Honey follows Star (Sasha Lane), an Oklahoma teenager, who is looking after two younger half-siblings. When a cocky, alluring older boy, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), offers Star a chance to travel with him across the country, she ditches her nagging family and joins him. Jake is the lead salesman in a large group of disaffected teens selling magazines, led by the edgy Krystal (Riley Keough). Along the way, we see an on and off relationship between the group and a few of its members.
From the opening ten minutes, we get a real sense of what this film will entail. We see Star searching through a skip and trying to hitch a lift with her two half-siblings. We also see Jake turn up with his rowdy crowd of raving misfits who end up dancing on checkout kiosks when Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ blares over the tannoy. The sequence tells us everything we should know for the next two and half hours. Star hasn’t had her break in life and is clearly a caring person, Jake is of interest to Star but can he be trusted? And the gang of misfits clearly offer Star some kind of dysfunctional family she has been longing for.
From this moment on, we see Star develop as a character as she learns how to be lone ranger in a pack of individuals from her mentor Jake. Jake takes an immediate shine to Star and teaches her how to sell magazines (the groups income) and how to deal with their leader Krystal. Krystal clearly has a hold on Jake as he does anything for her. Jake is very much the manager of the group but Krystal is the director.
Along the way, Jake and Star get much closer as their relationship builds and that is where we see the beauty of American Honey. Arnold creates two narratives in one as we follow a band of misfits going about the daily grind to make money for drugs and dodgy antics but we also see a blossoming love unfold.
Andrea’s coming-of-age road movie needs the two side-plots running linear with each other. This movie covers the splintered and disjointed America where the gang are concerned but Arnold also has time to show moments of beauty through alone time between Star and Jake. There are graphic sex scenes but there is a kind of splendour to it. At no point did I think it was too much.
With an epic runtime, there are constant fears that the film will boil too early and fizzle out. With American Honey, Arnold uses these breakout scenes between the central protagonists to stem the flow; she can let the film simmer and distance the movie from reaching a high-pitch too early. Andrea’s filming technique allows the movie to seamlessly drift from scene to scene with the audiences’ curiosity growing.
Arnold’s choice of using handheld camera is a clincher. Sometimes, films over use this technique but it seems this way of filmmaking was made for American Honey. It allows the audience to feel as though we are on the rowdy bus with the gang or, if a little creepily, watching Star and Jake get cosy from a nearby bush. It just makes the film a lot more real and relatable.
I’d like to say a comment about the two leads here before the review concludes. You’ll struggle to find a finer performance from a debut actor than Sasha Lane here. She’s charismatic yet innocent with a rough edge to keep us on our toes. She feels like the only organic character we can latch on to which is again great writing from Arnold. This whole sense of everybody is on their own is embodied in Sasha’s character. LaBeouf is the more puzzling character here; he seems caring yet there’s something screaming at us to never trust him. He is the most frequent person in Star’s life so we tend to side with him even when we probably shouldn’t. LaBeouf is a top quality actor and delivers on nearly every film he pops up in – American Honey is no different.
Be sure to catch this epic road movie whenever you can, it’s eye-opening in an emotional way. It feels like this story has been done so many times before but Arnold’s touch is devastating. She is a lot subtler in her approach and for some reason, that eats away at you more.
Cineroom’s Rating: 4.5 Stars
American Honey screened at the Phoenix Leicester and has recently been nominated for multiple BIFAs