"We explore, like, America."
Synopsis: A teenage girl joins a band of misfit magazine subscription sellers. Tribulations ensue. Watch the trailer.
It's the type of experience where you walk out of the theatre shaking your head, unwilling to talk to anyone, hardly able to think about anything else. I went alone. I enjoy going to the pictures alone, as much as with friends. In Hollywood everyone did it. On Monday morning anywhere in the entertainment industry (I worked at Capitol Records), the question wasn't, "did you see A Scanner Darkly?" It would be, "What'd you think of A Scanner Darkly?" The assumption being built in that you'd already seen the weekend's latest releases.
My habit for going alone formed before I moved back to L.A., however. There's something so potent about experiencing the film medium singly, with no interference, no intermediary. As I love traveling alone, so too the cinema: as a friend once explained after she'd surprised me by selecting a particularly intense film for the night, "I want to feel something."
Who you see a film with alters the experience significantly, even if you never speak while it's playing (I can't talk during movies). When you're the only one there, your thoughts are yours alone, communing between the film and yourself, the silver screen an ever-turning mirror for your musings, reflecting and refracting the thoughts of ourselves. Some of my most intense filmgoing experiences occurred alone: Mulholland Drive, Apocalypse Now Redux, The New World… the private, potent drenching you receive, known only by yourself, and that richly satisfying feeling of wandering about in a daze afterwards, where you're still in another world and there's no one to talk to about it.
American Honey is the sort of overpowering sensual experience this sort of approach best rewards. It's a sprawling, magisterial work, dense with color, energy, and youthful verve, popping with wall-to-wall music and the language of freedom and dance. Director Andrea Arnold's 162-minute magnum opus is gigantic and intimate, a highbrow portrait of lowbrow worlds, a work of startling compassion and stunning technical proficiency. Boyhood was a gentle, involving portrait of childhood over time; American Honey is an adrenaline shot in the arm, capturing the true, high-impact spirit of head-over-heels adolescence. It's Walt Whitman's Pioneers, O Pioneers brought to whirling, effervescent cinematic life.
How do you come back to normal existence after this? I was less disappointed to do so than euphoric at the prism through which Arnold asks us to consider humanity. The characters are impoverished, from squalid and broken homes, lacking in education and prospects, but poverty isn't the subject. It's the brimming vitality Arnold sees and wishes to celebrate, and celebrate she does; the film positively throbs with a raucous soundtrack parade of partying and song. It's amazing, the range of music she finds use for.
I guess I should hold off on the superlatives long enough to actually mention what the film is about. British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (most known for Fish Tank, the searing 2009 bruiser and best reviewed British film of that year, about a headstrong girl in the Essex housing projects, co-starring Michael Fassbender) began exploring America in earnest after reading a 2007 New York Times article on door-to-door magazine subscription sellers. She went on about ten solo road trips, mostly in America's south, east coast, and midwest. The resulting film, itself created on a 12,000 mile road trip taken with the cast and small crew, spends its time in the vast tracts of what we forget most of the US landmass is: the sparsely populated interior. She doesn't look down on the quality of life there, but sees the irrepressible human spirit at its best, bursting through the gauze of wayward youth. Her protagonist is Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), a soft-spoken girl from Texas who falls in with a group of teenage magazine sellers headed by Shia LeBeouf (never better, even with a phenomenally bad rat-tail hairdo).
We watch as Star and the gang cruise about, dancing, singing, boozing, talking, and all the rest… Star is more observant than the others, and more we often see her silently reflecting. There's a world behind those eyes, growing into itself as we watch. It's not a plot-heavy picture, relying on an anecdotal series of vignettes layered in and about each other. That we're engaged the entire time is a testament to Joe Bini's sensitive, rhythmic editing. The pacing is indulgent, but would you really want to miss any of this? Star learns that life is not a neatly arranged narrative, and by extension so do we. We luxuriate instead in incidents of character, the fragments of moments she'll remember when she's older, moments she doesn't yet know are formative.
Andrea Arnold's casting process is quickly becoming the stuff of legend. She found the lead for Fish Tank, non-professional Katie Jarvis, when Jarvis was screaming at a boyfriend on a train station platform. Arnold found Sasha Lane on a beach in Panama City. Talk about striking gold twice. Lane and LeBeouf have a chemistry beyond electric. The camera's undeniably capturing something real there– small wonder the two actors subsequently became a real-life couple. The sensitivity and nuance in Lane's performance, its gradual shifts of key throughout the film, not to mention the complete candor the rest of the (largely non-professional) cast possess before the camera simply leaves my jaw on the ground. How did Arnold get them to be so comfortable? I was pretty sure you'd never see teens acting this uninhibited in front of an adult Arnold's age, and yet here we are. The frankness, the vulgar vernacular, the dilapidated textures… it all ends up enhancing the beauty of what's really taking place.
A word needs to be said regarding Irishman and Arnold regular Robbie Ryan's cinematography. Take another look at the trailer. Notice the unusual Academy (square) ratio, forcing a different compositional sense inherently antithetical to the road movie, and more intimate; the plucky use of vibrant colors and deep blacks; the use of long lenses, adding depth to the frame, often focusing on just the strands of hair on a person's face or the edges of their fingers; the dreamy and indelible choices of imagery. As a photographer it's rare I watch a film with compositions I've never seen before. Here I was leaning forward from frame one.
I admire filmmakers who aren't afraid to go big, to boldly throw themselves into the making of audacious works that manage to be maximalist expressions of form while simultaneously possessing the subtlety necessary to show us meaningful slices of existence. There are certain films which look upon their flawed and human protagonists with a certain warmth of gaze. In the same way you feel Paul Thomas Anderson's genuine affinity toward his misfit characters in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Arnold doesn't look down on her cadre of youngsters. This isn't a turgid slog through everything wrong with destitute middle America. It's a buoyant celebration. Why was I moved so tremendously by this picture?
I wonder if I see a commonality between Arnold's gaze and my own toward many of my passengers: it isn't their poorness which defines them, but their humanity.
P.S. Also, can we linger for a moment on how brilliant the end credits are? Nothing but an alphabetical list of names, with no job descriptions, no "starring" or "directed by..." you'd never know who did what on the picture if it wasn't for the internet. Andrea Arnold's name is buried in there right alongside the extras and drivers. Talk about egalitarian!
-Director Andrea Arnold on the cross-country party that produced American Honey (The Verge)
-Andrea Arnold on her mesmerizing party on wheels, American Honey (A.V. Club)
-Andrea Arnold interview excerpts from the Cannes press conference (IndieWire)
-An insightful review from Cannes on reconsidering the notion of youth being wasted on the young (The Playlist)
-Andrea Arnold: ‘I always aim to get under the belly of a place’ (The Guardian)
-A crash course on Andrea Arnold– hallmarks of her style, focus, and background on her previous work (Vox)