Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Director: Andrea Arnold
Running Time: 164 mins
Synopsis: Star, on the cusp of adulthood, leaves her troubled and abusive home in the American Midwest and joins with a ragtag bunch of travelling sales people. Selling magazine subscriptions door to door, and partying hard each night, Star finds herself drawn to Jake (LaBeouf) and a journey of discovery begins.
We need to talk about Sasha Lane!! The star of British director Andrea Arnold’s new cinematic masterwork is a true breakout. Spotted by Arnold on a beach in America, and with no previous acting experience, she is heartbreakingly honest and real. In fact Lane herself has stated in interviews that for the extensive shoot she found the lines between her and Star were non-existent. As the film opens, in a tight 4:3 screen ratio which stays throughout the film emphasising the intimate nature of proceedings, we meet Star searching through a dumpster in the quest for food with her two younger siblings. It is apparent that the situation she has found herself in is not pleasant. We get glimpses of her troubled home life, with an abusive step-father and squalid living facilities. She does all she can to look after and protect her young charges but it is evident that it is weighing heavily on her. The bracing intimacy of her performance and Arnold’s small framed camera is thoroughly engrossing.
A chance meeting with a group of wild partying sales people lures Star into making the decision which sets the film in motion. But more accurately it is the allure of LaBeouf’s Jake that propels her. Locking eyes outside a supermarket before she witnesses him dancing to Rihanna’s We Found Love upon the tills. It is clear this is a man of little inhibitions and his lust to do whatever he feels like is a hook for the lost Star. Not to mention the pining of a young woman discovering her first encounter with passionate lust. In the role of Jake LaBeouf can finally be forgiven for what can only be described as a rough period. After his endless parade of pretentious so called ‘post modern’ performance art, if putting a bag on your head counts as art, he has once again tapped into the energy and jittery vitality that made him a star to start with. The chemistry between the two of them is magnetic and intoxicating. Alternating between aggressive, caring, erotic and suffocating. They are a joy to watch, and the two scenes of them having sex are possibly some of the hottest sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Helped by the almost intrusive nature of Arnold’s camera.
So we have two terrific performances but what of the plot you say! Well there isn’t one per se. It is more a series of moments. The only real dramatic thrust stemming from the multiple encounters Star has with parts of the Midwest, and the complex tug between her, Jake and Riley Keough’s leader of the pack Krystal. The dynamic between them is tumultuous to say the least, with the intense jealously threatening to derail the entire party. Keough is a drawling, slutty delight, with her attempts to act professional jarring with the skimpy outfits and constant swearing. But at nigh on 3 hrs, having a film with little plot and regular scenes of drunken debauchery could become a little, well, boring.
On the contrary, and believe me not everyone will agree, it doesn’t go on long enough. If you let yourself become absorbed into it you will fall in love with Star. I wanted to follow her for so much longer. The documentary nature of it all, makes you consider where she will be in 1 year, in 5 years, in 10 years. I almost wished Arnold took a Boyhood approach to it all.
There is also much more going on underneath. This isn’t just one girls journey into adulthood, with all its frustrations and pain. It is a parable for the economic and social plight of the current generation. It is clear in the emotional conversations between Star and Jake, in their desire to just simply own a house and live in security. It is evident in the lower and upper class divides glimpsed as this travelling circus pitches up in the numerous towns across America. Scenes of dirty children, drug addled parents and wild dogs are potent in their matter of fact appearances. Star doesn’t want the American Dream, she just wants the human dream, to be loved and to love!
Andrea Arnold beautifully captures this with frequent Terence Malick-like shots of nature in its element. It’s telling that Star is the only one who encounters and notices these creatures, there maybe darkness and hopelessness for us but in her there is a chance for hope. This is all shot with distinctive colour and contrast by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who here crafts some of the most breathtaking imagery I’ve ever seen, especially coming out of such a tight filmic frame.
I could wax lyrical for some time about a film with so much under the hood. And I’m sure there will be numerous articles and think-pieces on the themes and ideas prevalent. But to examine all that will ruin what is a vibrant vital utterly life affirming masterpiece. Andrea Arnold has catapulted herself into the pantheon of cinematic masters, and Sasha Lane deserves to become nothing less than her namesake! A Star is born.
Verdict: American Honey is a long journey, but a vital one! A singularly human experience reminding us of the beauty, vulnerability, agony and joy of being alive. Its images will be seared into your eyes and its ideas into your brain. A masterpiece.