States of grace under pressure
Arnold Arnold further refines her taste for the poetry of grime with this stunning road movie
AMERICAN HONEY Directed by Andrea Arnold. Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Arielle Holmes, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi 16 cert, limited release, 162 min During one of many vehicular epiphanies in Andrea Arnold’s loosely structured fourth feature, Star (Sasha Lane), a troubled young woman hanging with a wild crew, bellows out: “I feel like I’m fucking America.”
It’s not clear if the f-word is meant in its verbal or adjectival sense, but I like to think that it’s the latter. It requires some chutzpah to give your film a two-word title beginning with “American”. This indicates you are making a statement about an entire continent.
Sure enough, Arnold sweeps a great many national discontents into her wide embrace. Derived from a 2007 article in The New York Times, the film details the adventures of a team flogging magazine subscrip- tions acrossthe Midwest. Star and team meet all sorts. She is picked up by the sort of wad-waving oil-rich cowboys whose pencils will not waver when choosing between Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton.
Later on, she warms to children living bravely in extreme poverty. We break frequently for singalongs to contemporary bangers. In every one of its many minutes, American Honey celebrates the geographical characteristic – wide open space – that most distinguishes the US from Arnold’s native England.
We first meet Star, a spirited Texan, doing her best to care for her layabout mother’s other two children. Life changes when she encounters Jake (Shia LaBeouf, annoying on purpose) and his crew creating mayhem in the local supermarket. He talks her through the logistics of the operation – hustle, sell, hand over most of the loot – and she decides to throw her lot in with the gang. They climb into a people-carrier and make for Kansas City.
The taste for the poetry of grime will be familiar from earlier Arnold pictures such as Fish Tank and Red Road. Her long-term collaborator, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, is given greater freedom than before and produces endless smeared masterpieces. What we haven’t had from Arnold before is this degree of sprawl. This picaresque film could lose a whole hour or (we’re told the footage exists) gain another two.
Many will find the journey exhausting. What it most suggests is a big, sprawling triple album by a really good band (more Sandinista! than London Calling). There are many troughs and peaks. But the bagginess is very much part of the aesthetic.
After all, America is an uneven nation.
Hustle and flow Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in American Honey