Review: American Honey



DIR/WRI: Andrea Arnold • PRO: Thomas Benski, Lars Knudsen, Lucas Ochoa, Pouya Shahbazian, Jay Van Hoy, Alice Weinberg • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Joe Bini • DES: Kelly McGehee  • CAST: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough

With Fish Tank, English director Andrea Arnold set herself apart as a cinematic pioneer with a highly naturalistic and poetic vision. American Honey solidifies that vision wholly, proving Arnold to be an auteur of immense talent and scope. She’s a directorial powerhouse, her filmmaking is lucid yet ethereal. It feels more like alchemy than filmmaking, and her process, seemingly mystic, yet it’s always grounded in a devout emotional reality. Her imagery has an emotional charge which seemingly transcends the screen, and the performances she draws from actors are to die for. For Arnold, American Honey is another foray into the world of social realism, the key difference here being, she’s shifted her focus to an exploration of contemporary America.

The films starts off with Star (Sasha Lane), a lonely misfit on the verge of adulthood, who is caught up in a dominating relationship. But through a chance encounter with the enigmatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), she gets an opportunity to break away joining his Mag crew circus. Through Star we’re quickly ingratiated into the world of Mag crews, crews of teenagers who go door to door, state by state selling dodgy magazine subscriptions. Throughout the film we follow her as she chases the American dream, setting off into the Promised Land in search of love and freedom.

Arnold’s become renowned for her use of street casting and embracing non-actors, and indeed American Honey is no exception. There’s an uncensored rawness to the performances that’s nothing short of highly engaging. First time actress Sasha Lane is immediately catapulted from complete obscurity to international stardom, giving a toweringly nuanced performance. This is complimented by Shia LaBeouf’s ferocious turn as the sweaty, ponytail-wearing hick, Jake.

While much of the film feels improvised it’s always driven by a solid comprehensive story, complete with strong emotional beats and character turns. You can sense Arnold’s unfaltering devotion to the script in the sheer authenticity of the material. There’s not a second on screen that’s wasted, and that doesn’t feel like it absolutely needs to be there. With Arnold it’s immediately clear you’re in the hands of a master storyteller, and with that comfort we’re brought on a highly immersive journey into the unknown in the most organic way possible.

Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s earthy cinematography enriches the depths of the script, and breathes new life into the classic 4:3 ratio. Literally making it a square cage, keeping the characters literally walled in like wild animals. Leaving them scrapping, screaming, pushing at the walls, tearing at the seams; doing anything and everything to burst out. The sun-soaked landscapes are drenched with an ethereal ambience, yet seamlessly retain a biting sense of realism.

This is one of those rare films that’s bordering on extinction, where the distinction between process and theme is near invisible, and it’s nothing short of intoxicating. You can choose to articulate it as eloquently as you like but stripping all formalities aside, this is seriously first-rate work shepherded by a virtuoso director. American Honey is spellbinding, spell-breaking cinema, a honey trap for the senses too seductive to refuse.

Michael Lee

162 minutes
16 (See IFCO for details)

American Honey is released 14th October 2016

American Honey – Official Website