(Andrea Arnold, USA/UK, 2016) 163 minutes


Director: Andrea Arnold
Producers: Thomas Benski, Lars Knudsen,
  Lucas Ochoa, Pouya Shahbazian,
  Jay Van Hoy, Alice Weinberg
Screenplay: Andrea Arnold
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Editor: Joe Bini
Music Supervisor: Simon Astall
Sasha Lane (Star)
Shia LaBeouf (Jake)
Riley Keough (Krystal)
McCaul Lombardi (Corey)
Arielle Holmes (Pagan)
Crystal Ice (Katness)
Verronikah Ezell (QT)
Chad McKenzie Cox (Billy)

Reviews and notes

2016 Cannes, Toronto, Zurich, Calgary, Bergen, London, Hamburg, Haifa, Sofia, Stockholm
2017 Rotterdam, Belgrade, Vilnius

Mere minutes into American Honey, her scrappy, sprawling astonishment of a fourth feature, Andrea Arnold hits the audience with a song choice almost too perfect to work. As a girl’s gaze meets a boy’s across the packed aisles of a Midwestern Walmart, the euphoric EDM throb of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s 2011 smash We Found Love hijacks the busy soundscape, setting a love story emphatically in motion by the time he hops up to dance on the checkout counter. “We found love in a hopeless place,” the song’s chorus ecstatically declares, over and over, as well it might — does it get more hopeless than Walmart, after all? It’s a gesture so brazenly big and romantically literal that it can’t help but have your heart, and it’s such an early, ebullient cinematic climax that Arnold dares repeat it two hours later, cranking up the song again in a more fraught, nervous context. Like much of what the director risks in American Honey, she shouldn’t get away with it, but most defiantly does.
- Guy Lodge, Variety, 14 May 2016.

Andrea Arnold made her name with distinctively photographed films about social outsiders, often young women, from the provocative revenge drama Red Road (2006) to a sensuous adaptation of Wuthering Heights (2011). American Honey, her first film to be made outside the UK, has most in common with her portrait of a frustrated teenager on an Essex estate, Fish Tank (2009), though the divide between rich and poor gapes in all her films. With this class-conscious road movie, Arnold takes a risk by setting out to pass comment on social inequality in a foreign country.

American Honey follows the trail of Texas teenager Star (Sasha Lane), who leaves her thankless life caring for her younger half-siblings to join a magazine sales crew on the road. These self-styled 'sales associates' are led by a glassy-eyed boss called Krystal (Riley Keough) and her pet salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who starts an affair with Star. Their sales techniques are ethically reprehensible and only sporadically effective – preying on customers' weaknesses until they pay out of pity, lust or guilt.

In opposition to countercultural road movies such as Easy Rider (1969), Krystal's team travel in pursuit of the American Dream, not to escape it. The US lays out its inequalities for the crew through the van window – the spreading lawns of well-heeled suburbia, the slipshod children playing in motel car parks – and Krystal schemes to exploit them. In a neighbourhood rich on oil money she hands out "dirty white trash" costumes like a latterday Peachum, and tells the boys to target the lonely wives. "These are poor people like you, so just have normal conversations," she commands. When Star clocks up her first sale, she yells in triumph, "I feel like I'm fucking America!"

The cast is mostly made up of unprofessionals, scouted by Arnold, but even the more familiar names tell a story of soured American dreams. LaBeouf was a Disney child star who lost his marketable innocence via addiction, scandal and questionable performance art. He channels that chequered persona into a captivating turn as a rough, dangerous charmer, veering between sweetness and aggression. Keough, the villain in a Confederate-flag bikini, is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, but exudes the steely smugness of a self-made woman, living large off her underlings' labour. Lane, whose scrunched-up face gives a wary edge to her most tender moments, was spotted by Arnold on a beach usually trawled by the producers of adult films. With the camera pinned to her face through most of the film, Lane's naturalistic, often explosive performance crowns American Honey's success.

When Star and Jake first start flirting, she returns his glitter-encased phone to him, sneering, "You like this shiny thing?" Capitalist Jake likes all shiny things (girls, cash, his hoard of stolen treasure) and American Honey offers itself up as another prize. Its delicious surface is thanks largely to Robbie Ryan's gorgeous Academy-ratio cinematography, which exploits every source of light for its beauty, from sunshine filtered through gummy bears on a window to fireflies or an oil-well flare. American Honey provides as much spectacle as a Hollywood musical, and the crew spend more time singing, rapping or dancing to the radio than conversing. Jake woos Star by turning a supermarket into a rave as he dances to Rihanna's We Found Love; Krystal motivates her team with a call-and-response rap; and the gang find unity singing along to American Honey by Lady Antebellum.

American Honey promises a clear narrative path from the moment it drops in a cutaway to a pair of ruby slippers and Star leaps out of her tree-swing, resolved to leave her home behind and hit the road. With dreadlocks for pigtails and a rucksack instead of a pinafore, Star is a new Dorothy, with the sales team her broken friends seeking completion. Krystal's shimmering outfits and casual cruelty make her the wicked witch. Jake is both a companion and the cyclone, whisking Star into a new world. The closest she comes to returning home, however, is finding a place just like it, an emerald-painted house where the neglected children of an addict mother play unsupervised and the fridge is all but empty. It's something at least. Her peers in the van, who spend their money on booze and drugs as fast as they earn it, are still circling as the film closes.

If American Honey has a message it is that dreams are always out of reach. Arnold's cut-in shots of butterflies, birds and bugs failing to take flight reinforce the feeling that something is keeping these young Americans down. Only Star pauses to set the bugs free. And her essential virtue, taking care of neglected children and dreaming of a trailer and family of her own, distinguishes her from her fellow travellers, chasing paper money down the highway. Within a glittering collage of soaring music, soft light and writhing bodies, this brilliant film draws the outline of a bleak economic landscape.
- Pamela Hutchinson, Sight and Sound, November 2016.

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