Friday, October 14, 2016

American Honey

Director Andrea Arnold with young protégé Sasha Lane

AMERICAN HONEY           B+      
Great Britain  USA  (162 mi)  2016  d:  Andrea Arnold 
I won’t compromise
I won’t live a life
On my knees
You think I am nothing
I am nothing
You've got something coming
Something coming because

I hear God’s whisper
Calling my name
It’s in the wind
I am the savior
—Raury “God’s Whisper” 2014, Raury - God's Whisper (Official Video) - YouTube (4:39)
A film with an attitude, where sometimes in the Darwinian universe that’s all one has from those at the bottom to keep them alive.  Winner of the Jury Prize (3rd Place) at Cannes, the director’s third instance of receiving this award following RED ROAD (2006) and FISH TANK (2009), while also receiving an Official Commendation from the Ecumenical Jury, as the film reveals “mysterious depths of human beings,” the film is skillfully directed, where the director’s talent for getting extraordinary performances out of non-professionals is what makes this movie tick.  This is another film with a European view of America, similar to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Wim Wenders Alice in the Cities (Alice in den Städten) Road Trilogy Pt. 1  (1974) and Paris, Texas (1984), but also Aki Kaurismäki’s LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA (1988), Emir Kusturica’s ARIZONA DREAM (1993), Bruno Dumont’s TWENTYNINE PALMS (2003), or perhaps the least seen and maybe the most delightful of them all, Percy Adlon’s BAGHDAD CAFÉ (1987).  These directors bring a curious eye to the American landscape, often adding their own humorous insights, but they also capture a completely different mood and set of questions about the world we live in.  Roughly based on the startling abuses discovered in a 2007 New York Times article ("For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews") about traveling groups of teenagers, many of them runaways or from broken homes, who sell magazine subscriptions for unscrupulous managers that show little sympathy for their best interests and instead drop them off anywhere along the road if they don’t produce, ruthlessly exploiting them for minimum pay, working purely on commission, as they only earn 25% of all subscriptions sold, but nearly all end up spending most of what they earn for daily needs, as what they’re provided is not nearly enough.  A Congressional investigation in 1987 uncovered 418 sellers, where 413 remained in debt to the company, while the managers themselves reported huge profits.  If sellers regularly had poor success rates or complained about the job, enforcers were brought in to instigate violent beatings.  The behavior of the managers unfortunately resembles pimps in the sex industry, where they intimidate and resort to cruel and excessive punishment to guarantee they get their money.  A grotesque portrait of capitalism, suggesting it is alive and well, where sometimes art is meant to be uncomfortable, and here it’s aimed as a heat-seeking missile directly into the heart of the status quo. 
Getting a better critical reception than when it was released at Cannes, one of the criticisms of the film is just how blunt it tends to be, offering a wrenching view of poverty in America, and an explosive, in-your-face look at throwaway kids living off the grid, barely garnering enough attention to matter even in their own lives, where instead they are seen as a forgotten or lost generation, as their parents and families have little use for them, while a nation barely notices.  So the film focuses on a rag-tag group of teenage dropouts and misfits in search of something better than the often disturbing places they are leaving behind, with ringleaders signing them up to work as a team of about a dozen kids from various places across the country selling overpriced magazine subscriptions that people don’t really want to buy, literally dropping them off in targeted neighborhoods while they spend their day going door-to-door as they make their way in a van traveling across the heartland of the American Midwest, stopping in cheap motels along the way, where they tend to drink heavily and do drugs, often partying long into the night.  Rather than sell the magazine, each kid has to sell themselves, using some imaginative, heart-tugging technique to grab someone’s attention straightaway, then using fabricated or personalized embellishments about how they’re trying to better themselves, making the buyer feel good about their potential investment, that it’s going to a good cause.  The audience wants to believe in these kids, even as we learn it’s all a scam.  To Arnold’s credit, the spirit of the film is uncompromising, as nothing is soft peddled, offering a damaged portrait of the American Dream conveyed through a bleak tone of broken lives, yet it’s filled with a youthful exuberance that’s beautifully expressed by a brash contemporary soundtrack reverberating throughout the film, much like the communal spirit of this song, Raury - God's Whisper (Official Video) - YouTube (4:39), where the incessant flow of extended music video style images are so in tune with the characters onscreen that almost every kid knows the lyrics to each and every song, becoming an anthem to lost and disaffected youth, as the downbeat tone and searing social realism breaks out into a musical format, as if the music has a spiritually cleansing effect, shaking them out of their doldrums, resuscitating their wounded souls, and literally bringing these kids back to life.  It is this energy they feed on, more than any junk food they eat for nourishment, sticking with the audience long after they’ve left the theater.  
While casting took pace in Oklahoma, searching beaches, construction sites, parking lots, and street activity, the lead character Sasha Lane was discovered while sunbathing on spring break in Panama City, Florida.  A 20-year old student at Texas State University, she was at a crossroads, trying to get her life back on track when she met Andrea Arnold, who auditioned her in the hotel where she was staying, offering an opportunity to go on the road for two months filming a movie.  Shooting in Muskogee, Okmulgee, and Norman, Oklahoma, the crew traveled to Mission Hills and Kansas City, Kansas, Omaha and Grand Island, Nebraska, going as far north as Williston, North Dakota.  The opening sequence plays out like a prelude, yet typifies the lives of so many others, as Star (Sasha Lane), a fragile soul in dreads, is living a dead-end existence somewhere in Texas dumpster diving and taking care of two kids that don’t even belong to her, while living with an older, abusive guy who’s more interested in staying drunk and getting high.  By chance, she spies a group of kids pulling off the road into a Wal-Mart parking lot, where in the store she makes eye contact with one of them, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who immediately starts flirting with her, jumping on the check-out counter, dancing to the upbeat vibe of the piped-in music, Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” American Honey | We Found Love | Official Clip HD YouTube (1:34).  Transfixed by his personal magnetism, as well as the expressive abandon of the entire group, Jake turns out to be a recruiter for the mag-crew, encouraging her to join them, suggesting she be at a Motel 6 the next morning, as they’re leaving for Kansas.  It’s only then that we’re offered a window into her deplorable homelife.  On the spot she decides to leave, sneaking out the window, marching both kids over to a local country western bar featuring line dancing and dropping them off with their stunned real mother, "American Honey", extrait du film YouTube (1:17).  By morning she is heading to Kansas, suddenly free as a bird.  While this carefree group of characters feels upbeat, constantly joking and horsing around with each other, they each similarly have no one else in the world to call a friend, as all they have is each other.  Star’s uninhibited, free-spirited nature doesn’t kick in at first, where she’s unfamiliar with their near cult camaraderie, discovering they share the same kind of groupthink that’s been beaten into their heads by their cutthroat boss, a surprisingly strict Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) as Krystal, a woman who takes most of the profits and has Jake completely under her thumb.  She has no problem with their foolish shenanigans of staying wasted on the road so long as the crew brings her money.  Consider her George C. Scott from THE HUSTLER (1961).  At her most manipulative, she reads Star the riot act while clad in a Confederate bikini with the price tag still hanging from it, with Jake dutifully oiling her legs, just for good measure, American Honey | Krystal's Motel | Official Clip HD YouTube (1:42).  She leaves no question about who’s in charge, aligning her troops on the street every day with military precision.  At the end of the day, those who sell the least are forced to fight each other, with the others looking on with heightened interest.     
Arnold has a tendency to showcase young underprivileged women characters, but the electrically charged Star surprises even herself, as she sabotages Jake’s pitch when it turns too manipulating, finding it morally objectionable, something she cannot bring herself to do, while Krystal is wired to believe lying and selling are the same thing, suggesting that’s the business of making money.  Instead, Star has a tendency to go off script, engaging in extremely risky behavior, where she comes across as somewhat pure or saint-like in an otherwise bleak universe engulfing her, where she has a habit of saving bugs or insects, and is even visited by a friendly bear at one point, though this may just be imagined, and while she continually puts herself in harm’s way, jumping alone into groups of strange men, convinced they will purchase magazine subscriptions, she retains a spirited attitude throughout her entire ordeal, where her face is constantly on camera, where a light seems to follow her wherever she goes.  Beautifully shot by Robbie Ryan, working regularly with Ken Loach as well as Andrea Arnold, who seems to find a balance between well-manicured suburban lawns and dilapidated houses on the outskirts of town, taking in the entire spectrum of social classes, where easily the most affecting are those experiencing profound poverty, living in hopeless circumstances where small children are routinely left alone, with one young girl, a child of meth addicts, proudly spouting the lines of a Dead Kennedy’s song “I Kill Children.”  Despite the length of the film, the stream of images onscreen feels like a barrage to the senses, a joyous and optimistic journey that is musically transformative, with every day feeling like the 4th of July, although there is excessive drug and alcohol use, where it’s hard to believe they could actually perform cognitively under such a constant onslaught, yet there is no one watching over these kids, who are free to willingly walk in their own shoes and make their own mistakes in life.  What the film has is a distinguishing swagger, where there’s a boldness in their discovery of personal liberation, in their willingness to defy conventional wisdom, yet these risks have a downside, as there are consequences for going too far.  Star’s moodiness with Jake leads to a drop in his sales, where there’s some question whether she can actually cut it, which forces her to recklessly take even greater risks.  While there’s an undeniable attraction between them from the outset, as he’s the only reason she joined in the first place, their whirlwind romance is only briefly interjected throughout, as it’s constantly thwarted by Krystal’s dominating presence.  Shia LaBeouf is outstanding, where all he has to do is just be himself, charming, impulsive, dangerous, yet incredibly flawed.  The film is extremely well directed and has a beautiful rambling flow about it, but there’s not much of an actual story, as there’s no real beginning or end, much like the undeveloped lives of these kids, suggesting an impressionistic, stream-of-conscious montage of youthful impulses, where it’s as much about a yearning to be free as it is a deplorable picture of capitalistic exploitation, yet perhaps its greatest strength lies in vividly capturing the lives of discarded kids who are barely ever acknowledged, who feel they have no future, no place in society, yet remain among our most vulnerable, living a shadow existence that most of us never see. 


  1. The Cannes jury deserves credit for acknowledging this film, but it should have received the best director award instead of Graduation, which deserved the Palm d'Or. Seeing it a second time I was astonished about the number of bug shots. You were most attentive to find that worthy of mention. It was the film I was most looking forward to seeing again after Cannes. It did not disappoint. I'd gladly see it again next week. It is super-charged with energy and insight. Just sorry there was just that lone opening dumpster-diving scene.

  2. Graduation is on my list of films to see at the upcoming film festival, so I'll let you know if I view it as strongly as you do. While this film seems to grow more powerful over time, I especially enjoyed the detail that captured Andrea Arnold's eye, where these are literally kids living day to day.