Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature film is not an unqualified success. When asked what I thought of it, the recurring phrase that came to my lips was, ‘It had its moments.’ Those moments, and there are a good few, are sublime, arresting, unexpected, troublesome and weirdly uplifting.
Much has been made of the lead actress, Sasha Lane, who plays Star. Perhaps there is too much hype in our day and age, and because of the noise surrounding her it seemed that it would be hard for me not to be disappointed. However, her performance is faultless, seamless (similar in that way to Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn). At various points throughout the film I caught myself wondering what Lane will do next, for I couldn’t successfully visualise a film role that would suit her. Then it occurred to me that she is an actress whom writers and directors will break down doors to write stories around, such is her charisma and presence. Stories that few people other than her have the power to portray. This is a far higher compliment.
Music fills the open space in American Honey, literally: papering over the cracks, the warped joints and the eclectic histories of the young road crew. The music is overwhelmingly diegetic, meaning that its use is always justified and motivated by events in the story world of the film. As the magazine crew roar their way up and down America’s Midwest, an onslaught of mostly hip-hop and pop is their constant companion. Right at the end, however, there is a powerful contrast when the song American Honey (by country group Lady Antebellum) is played in the van. At that moment the song becomes emblematic of the fragile union, each character momentarily united in being together, alone. The lack of non-diegetic music, or score, is a trait Arnold is known for. When directors are asked why they prefer to keep non-diegetic music to a minimum the common answer is that they don’t want to conduct or manipulate an audience’s feelings or relationship to the story, events, or characters (a number of the director interviewees in Elena Oumano’s Cinema Today express similar sentiments). Such an argument is vindicated in the two sequences in which Star finds herself alone with unknown men. In a majority of cases, the musical score is used to suggest, signal, warn, cajole and comfort its audience, ‘Now, now. Don’t worry, the music is helping to tell you where the story is going.’ So much so that to not have it there - all the while expecting its presence whilst knowing that it will no arrive - is, at first, quite alarming. However, without music there as a metaphoric bannister and melodic support system, one is left to think and feel for one's self, on one's own terms. In the end the effect is actually liberating, and instructive.
The film is too long (about 30 minutes long for me, others will have their own internal threshold), and never quite gets deep enough to paint a truly credible portrait of anyone other than Star. It is a film that expands Arnold’s storytelling horizons (namely, America), whilst still retaining her core traits (emotionally-tender-yet-determined women). This film, like many other films, shines a light on a dark corner for the enlightenment of those who would not willingly go there. Bizarrely, I was reminded most of the great American films and filmmakers of the 1970s, from John Cassavetes to Terence Malick, from American Graffiti to Barbara Loden's Wanda. Shia LaBoeuf as Jake and Riley Keough as Krystal are both wonderfully unreadable in their roles, and the crew are believable and earnest in their acceptance of the situation they find themselves in.