AMERICAN HONEY Review
Director: Andrea Arnold
Impoverished decadence. Sentiments towards capitalism, especially the dire straits of America’s current economic climate, suffer from calculation. This applies across the board with films that work as social commentary. The nature of the cinematic arts infers that viewers need seeds planted so that they can later be paid off for dramatic effect. And films that excel at this craft are often lauded for their structural ingenuity. British director Andrea Arnold has proven her creative chops in her short film WASP and the 2009 drama FISH TANK. She knows cinematic structure like the back of her hand. But what she has created in 2016 may just be the crowning achievement for social realist cinema set in the United States. AMERICAN HONEY is a towering achievement, possibly the most genuine film of the 21st century, and the greatest film Harmony Korine never directed.
Over the epic course of 165 minutes, Andrea Arnold follows lead actress Sasha Lane, who skips town on two children that she’s taking care of in order to join a free-spirited group of young door-to-door magazine salesmen. Infatuated with the laissez-faire lifestyle of these 20-somethings, she discovers that even when living the nomadic life of a 21st century drifter, one can’t escape the grasp of capitalist America. Arnold wears her influences right on her sleeve. AMERICAN HONEY is EASY RIDER for the 21st century. But unlike Hopper’s film, Arnold has thematically bolstered her narrative through her British background. This is an American tale that’s been rendered through the lens of someone who grew up on Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.
Stepping drug to vaping
My first exposure to the potential of cinema vérité set in the US came with Larry Clark’s KIDS. As much as I love this film, it handles its message with a vice-like grip, forcing viewers to understand the cause and effect structure of his film. It is fundamentally a piece of art that acts to depict and chastise the lives of New York youth in order to leave the spectator floored. It is a practice of emotional destabilization. And it excels at it. But in the end, it is brutally calculated in its tragedy. What AMERICAN HONEY understands is that life doesn’t consist of logical causalities. Karma does not make for a hero’s redemption, and a sympathetic character trait can just as much be their downfall.
The power of Arnold’s narrative is found in its ease. Sequences never come to their obvious conclusions. Where Larry Clark would make you cry because someone is hopelessly sad, AMERICAN HONEY tears your heart in two when they are despondently happy. When Sasha Lane and co-star Shia LaBeouf (one of the best casting decisions since James Franco in Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS) commit grand theft auto, only to cheer about having made 400 dollars, Arnold punctuates her statement by showing us how Sasha Lane is visibly traumatized by earning 1000 dollars for giving an oilfield worker a handjob. Arnold dares to take that extra step, having her audience wonder if prostitution is a better alternative to her destitute lifestyle, and the fact that this isn’t ever addressed, but only planted in the viewer’s mind, elevates AMERICAN HONEY from ever stepping into familiar territory.
“I’ll give you 400 dollars to get rid of that stupid tattoo”
Through this dejected canvas, Andrea Arnold renders the American midwest into a confused sprawl. In one profound image, we see our gang urinating off the side of a highway. The camera pans over, only to reveal that they are looking over a beautiful vista. Not everything is as it seems in Arnold’s world, and whether her characters know that is left up in the air. Sasha Lane is transported through various stations, resting at ghetto motels and canvassing at truckstops. And as her frail, deeply flawed personality is contrasted with other Americans, Arnold gives her viewers brief glimpses into the lives of working people, begging the question, “What exactly is an honest living?” The poetics of Arnold’s narrative are dense and complex, but through each clearly delineated pit stop and narrative beat, she helps ease the stress of deconstructing her thematics.
AMERICAN HONEY has two essential acts: everything before Sasha Lane’s first magazine sale to a blue-collar trucker, and everything after. It is during this scene, which brilliantly integrates Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream,” that Arnold begs to question Lane’s capitalist modus operandi. Prior to this sequence, Lane is concerned with saving victims. She starts as a surrogate mother for two impoverished children, and even once on the road as a modern day nomad, she is fundamentally concerned with helping insects. Even when on the verge of making a potentially massive sale to three wealthy men, Lane is distracted by a bee that’s caught in the pool. Shortly after making her sale to this trucker, she gets off and is forced to confront that even he has a dark secret: he is transporting cattle to be slaughtered.
Shia the Beef
The beauty of Arnold’s symbols are that they are holistic to her environment. Nothing feels like a willful plant. In her scene with the trucker, viewers see Sasha Lane forego something innocent in order to satiate her growing capitalist hunger. But what Arnold also draws attention to is that nobody in America truly makes an honest living. Whether you’re an oilfield worker, a truck driver, or a white collar employee, you are always exploiting someone else. The fact that Arnold makes this abundantly clear allows her to not chastise Lane for her reckless lifestyle, because when all is said and done, she is the only one still trying to maintain a firm grip on her humanity.
In what is easily one of the most elegantly cast, genuinely directed, beautifully shot, and expertly edited feature films of the millennium, Andrea Arnold has, at the age of 55, created a film that resonates with today’s youth more than any other film I can think of. Saying that this would be a great pairing with Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS would be an understatement. AMERICAN HONEY is OG Maco, AMERICAN HONEY is Springsteen, AMERICAN HONEY is Rihanna, AMERICAN HONEY is Lady Antebellum. As Arnold’s name sizzled in a shimmering glow during the closing credits, I sat transfixed. Who’d have thought films could still take my breath away? I turned to my brother and tried to articulate some scattered thoughts. But both of us had countless different things to say. Will I ever be able to fully deconstruct AMERICAN HONEY? Probably not. But that is exactly the primary fiber of every masterpiece’s DNA. And so Sasha Lane and her ambiguous journey flickered away, like fireflies in the night.