AMERICAN HONEY (2016, Andrea Arnold)
The daunting 163-minute length of Andrea Arnold’s slice-of-lower-class-life is off-putting in that it implies an epic narrative where none exists. Instead, the structure is a wheel-spinning series of musical episodes. Go in expecting a major dramatic epiphany at the end or a climactic explosion of tensions and you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, the passive experience of enduring this endless road trip means its seductive sound and imagery starts to fit you like an old pair of jeans. The more it gets washed and worn and faded, the more comfortable it is. This is less of a filmmaker preaching at you than one letting moments happen and leaving the stains in.
It’s a film taking place at the end of summer, before things have started to die, and when the sun feels like it’s cooking the frame even when night falls. Tank tops lose shape. Shoes get scuffed. Youths are too young to feel hangovers or sore legs from walking. Pop songs become shared experiences and communal expressions of joy rather than corporate grabs for consumer dollars. Strangers become friends with one quick nod that says “I’ve been there too, and it will be okay.”
At times the film feels like Rivette; or it feels like early David Gordon Green, or Lynne Ramsey. All music is diegetic even when it becomes the score. Scenes begin and end not with a plot question and answer, but when the eyelids open and close between daydreams. Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf anchor the film with solid performances, but Riley Keough and HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT’s Arielle Holmes make the sidelines pulse with realism. This story didn’t go where I wanted or expected it to, but that’s my problem. Things shouldn’t behave the way I want them. They should just be honest. And for whatever flaws AMERICAN HONEY has, honesty is its biggest virtue.