Film review – American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)

British-born Andrea Arnold may have created a cutting piece of social commentary in ‘American Honey’, delivered with a refreshingly natural voice, but with a running time of 163 minutes it does feel like there was scope to say the same thing in about half the time.

It follows troubled 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane), a free-spirited girl looking after two young children for ambiguous purposes (they’re not her children and the connection she has to them is never clearly stated). A chance encounter with Jake (Shia LeBeouf) leads to an opportunity with a random group of youngsters selling magazines from town-to-town, led by Krystal (Riley Keough), and she opts to run away from an inevitable life of  domestic imprisonment and abuse.

One of the principal achievements by Andrea Arnold is creating a truly realistic world for the cast to inhabit. She was involved in the principal photography and had essentially completed the entire road trip before they started filming, finding locations to realise her vision. 

The cast was mainly taken from the streets with no experience, supplemented by more familiar faces. With no history of being in USA at that time of her life (she was busy doing children’s TV show No. 73 with Sandi Toksvig and Neil Buchanan) she has done wonders with a reflection of an oft-ignored part of society.

The cast are also tremendous and natural in front of the camera, usually feeling like they are simply being captured rather than working from a script. Indeed, many scenes were shot without a script so there’s an element of reality about that statement. The result is that each segment feels absolutely real, partially due to the fact that nothing is rushed. Unfortunately the lack of focus belies this, with pacing being the true victim.

Lane and LeBeouf have real chemistry

Arguably, LeBeouf does need to remind everyone that he is a pretty decent actor, especially after that dreadful performance in Nymohomaniac. He does a solid job here, with his real-life fame adding to the gravitas afforded to him by his fellow cast members (which reflects his character’s position in the group’s pecking order). He has always been a good actor, though the rest of the world may never realise it.

The plaudits must go to Sasha Lane, a complete newcomer to acting who was picked up on a beach in Florida whilst on spring break. She’s a complete natural on camera. When she gets angry, you believe her. When she feels lust towards Jake, you believe her. Star is a girl being given the chance to be her own woman for the first time, still having to demean herself due to her vulnerability, still dogged by feelings of maternal responsibility to the children that, in all likelihood, weren’t hers to feel responsible about. A truly thought-provoking performance.

The ambiguous ending, however, cemented the feeling that the story was overlong. To take so long to build up to a suggestion that Star was probably going to leave the group just seemed like a disappointment when it had taken so long to get there.

A great story has been sabotaged here by a lack of ruthlessness in the edit. Perhaps it’s an indication that Arnold had grown too close to the material and couldn’t bear to cut any of it out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – plenty of directors don’t care enough of their final product – but it was a lot to ask of this audience member.

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