music friday: 1976
the wanderers (philip kaufman, 1979)

by request: film fatales #38: american honey (andrea arnold, 2016)

Andrea Arnold's earliest films were shorts influenced by the Dogme 95 movement. The two other features of Arnold that I have seen (Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) didn't seem clearly attached to Dogme, and it could be that Arnold has moved on. Still, both of those movies strive for a "real" look and approach, and this is even more apparent in American Honey. For one thing, Arnold likes using non-professional actors, which runs the risk of amateurish performances but which also makes for the "real" feel that Arnold is after. Shia LaBeouf (Jake) and Riley Keough (Krystal) are the only professionals I could spot, while the cast is a large one, with plenty of roles for the amateurs. It works in American Honey, for a number of reasons. Arnold gets natural performances from her big cast, which makes the film as a whole feel accurate. Shia LaBeouf effectively buries himself in his role, not standing out because of his acting expertise (Keough stands out, but that is appropriate for her character). Finally, and most important, Sasha Lane delivers in the lead role. Like the other amateurs, she feels natural. Like a movie star, she has an intriguing look to her. You could imagine her moving from acting novice to movie star very easily (her character's name is Star).

American Honey tells the story of a big group of young adults (Star is 18) who travel America in a van, selling magazine subscriptions door to door. It's a sprawling movie (163 minutes) that doesn't seem all that interested in focusing on any of the group beyond the main characters. They are recognizably different, but it seems less important than how they seem as a group ... their identity is tied to the group. Since not a lot happens in the film, and since the group is more important than most of the individuals, Arnold is relying a lot on Star, Jake, and Krystal to justify the movie's length, and she doesn't always succeed. Star is the only character with an arc ... it's not exactly a coming-of-age story, but she is learning about herself and about life as the movie progresses, while Jake and Krystal aren't different at the end than they were at the beginning. A lot of the traveling scenes run together, and the movie could easily have been shorter while still doing justice to Star.

As with the other films of hers I have seen, Arnold films in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Arnold has said that she feels 4:3 is perfect for framing one person, and she is often focusing on one person, so 4:3 works better than a widescreen format. Since American Honey, which looks quite beautiful at times, features lots of shots of landscapes, the squarish ratio seems counterintuitive. But it certainly works for Sasha Lane.

Arnold also makes effective use of music. The group is always listening to music, which makes it easy to offer an appropriate soundtrack to their actions. (I confess I was thrown out of the film for a bit when Bruce Springsteen's version of "Dream Baby Dream" came on, since that song always makes me cry.)

The thing I liked best about American Honey was the respect it has for its young characters. Too often we see teens filled with all sorts of negative stereotypes, in movies that seem designed solely to look down on those teens. American Honey is honest about its young people, but it is never snooty. This is my favorite Andrea Arnold movie so far. #450 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)