Friday, 14 October 2016

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: AMERICAN HONEY review

Andrea Arnold's latest film stars Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf as part of a crew of magazine salespeople travelling across the American heartland. A band of roamers drifting from town to town, partying and falling in love with each other, when they pass through Star's (Sasha Lane) town, she jumps at the chance to be taken away from her life of familial burden, line dancing and Nickleback. Using the same method to find a lead actress as she did when casting the unknown Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold found Sasha Lane during a visit to the American college blow-out spring break. Star is in almost every frame of the film, and Lane's wide eyed innocence helps inform the journey her character takes.

The film looks beautiful, as you would expect from cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who shot Arnold's debut Fish Tank as well as last year's Slow West and Catch Me Daddy, two vibrant and visually arresting films. Arnold's films have always encapsulated a kind of social realism that seemed to be utterly British, but these often undocumented and neglected areas of the USA (where she went to study film before returning to Blighty) fit her lens perfectly. The use of music is also greatly important in creating the tone. Most of the music comes from within the film, during the group's journeys where they sing along collectively as if it's some bonding ritual, and by using the particular genre of hip hop that it does, it makes no mistake that this is a film about the youth of today.

One of the most powerful aspects of American Honey is how it shows the watered down element of the "American Dream" that is still available to these kids. Whereas their parents may have sold cars or real estate, these poor and unskilled kids are selling magazines. That's not to say they're not good at it, and there's a number of scenes where Shia's Jake shows Star how he uses his charm and wit to sell magazines door to door. There's money to be made, and the group lie, cheat and steal in order to get a sale. It's here that Jake and Star differ on their outlook at life, as she wants to show the truth, not more bullshit. Star resorts to using her sexuality and femininity to make sales, jumping in the back of cars with men she doesn't know, giving the film a palpable undercurrent of sexual threat that's unnerving and constant.

The developing relationship between Star and Jake is infectiously romantic, and the film as a whole has a strong sense of physicality to it. As Jake, Shia delivers a fantastic performance. It's fair to say that after his wilderness years a lot of people will have written him off, but this is a real coming of age as an actor for LaBeouf. Still under 30 when  this film was shot, the maturity he displays in comparison to his younger crew members shows the treacherous chasm there is to cross in your twenties, and how difficult it can be to come out the other side unscathed. The supporting cast (also largely cast via Arnold's preferred method of finding untrained actors from real life characters) don't really have a lot to do besides party, although Riley Keough's Crystal at least is able to provide an antagonist for Star as her permanently angry boss.

Like any road trip, you've got to make sure the passengers are entertained before they get irritated, and American Honey does suffer the issue of being over long with a few false endings, repeatedly placing Star in situations not dissimilar to one she was in twenty minutes ago. I wouldn't call it an issue with pace, as the film relishes in taking its time and stargazing from the off, but could be improved with a tighter edit towards the finale.

A sometimes meandering look at a journey across the American heartland, Andrea Arnold has nevertheless created another believable world where real life experiences have informed the performances of her cast. A film about youth, love and the vibrancy of living life, American Honey is among the year's most beautiful and best, anchored by a strong performance by Shia LaBeouf and the announcement of a new talent in Sasha Lane.

Verdict
4/5

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