An incandescent road movie that soars on the sublime, even if the run time may challenge some. Arnold’s social realist chops once again excel.
There’s a glorious moment in last year’s finest film, Céline Sciamma’s pulsating Girlhood (Bande de Filles), that sees incandescent star Karidja Touré miming along to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ while her character drinks and dances with best friends in a hotel room, wearing the clothes they’ve only just stolen.
Sublime in its symbiosis, a song so redolent of youthful, triumphant energy whilst simultaneously smuggling sly socio-economic commentary, it goes toe-to-toe with and just pips Oscar Isaac grooving to ‘Get Down Saturday Night’ in Ex Machina for 2015’s stand-out scene.
What makes Touré’s staggering performance even more incredible is that she was a non-professional actor, spotted on the street by Sciamma. The same is true, though it was a beach, of the equally astonishing Sasha Lane in British writer/director Andrea Arnold’s mesmerising, sun-bleached, in the gutter staring at the stars road movie American Honey.
The first of its many sublime moments also features a tone perfect Rihanna song, this time ‘We Found Love’. Lane, as the appropriately named Star, avoids the unwanted affections of a deadbeat boyfriend, while the grinding poverty that sees her skip diving with the two young kids he had with another woman wear s her soul thin, signalled in the subtle tears that drop unnoticed on his back.
It’s on a quick pit stop for soft drink she cannot afford that Star first catches sight of a rat-tailed and brace-wearing Jake (Shia LeBeouf), all irrepressible swagger and the silver tongue of a snake-oil merchant. Dancing suggestively to the song, leaping onto the checkout belt and attracting the unwanted attentions of security, their eyes search hungrily for each other amidst the fake plastic toys of Kmart capitalism writ large.
A visual reference to Dorothy’s ruby slippers may be a tad blunt, but soon afterwards Star’s hitching a ride with Jake’s minibus-bound gang of modern-day Dickensian waifs, roped in to a sketchy magazine subscription racket that exists largely as a means to snoop around, and possibly snatch from, big fancy houses. It also takes them to trailer parks and everything in between as they cross the country chasing pocket money from a print business long since in decline.
Most of their preferably cash takings are withheld by the menacing, pimp-like Krystal, as played by Riley Keough, one of the few professional actors barring the Transformers star. She claims it’s to cover gas and rent in cheap motels, but a fair portion of it appears to go on drugs, spray tans and waxing, not to mention a convertible, though that may well have come via nefarious means.
Krystal clocks the threat Star poses to her sexual dominance over Jake immediately, creating a baseline of tension and a simmering power struggle that is as close to a traditional plot as the boldly realist Fish Tank director coms here. LeBeouf also does brilliant work, with the initially Fagin-like Jake revealed to be little more than a pawn.
Much of the movie’s almost three-hour run time is spent cruising along in the bus or partying by roadside or paddock camp fires, listening to constant hip-hop as myriad creepy crawlies fly by, caught in the magic light of Arnold’s Wuthering Heights cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Our voyeuristic window on this flitting life is framed in the vertical rectangular form of the Academy ratio.
There’s a fragile camaraderie that binds this group together, carrying them along on the faintest breeze of hope, which helps the movie glow from within every bit as much as Ryan’s beauteous work, even if at times the wandering nature of American Honey can see attention occasionally drifting.
A nevertheless glorious achievement, it’s well worth letting it all wash over you as Arnold plays with narrative expectation, particularly with regards to male violence, and yes, there’s even a replay of Rihanna, this time sexually charged in an entirely different way.
Maybe these kids are in a hopeless place, but as the free-spirited and uncompromising Star, Lane certainly knows what it takes to come alive.
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords
American Honey is screening now. Check venues here.