Saturday 22 October 2016

Review: American Honey

American Honey
Cert: 15 / 164 mins / Dir. Andrea Arnold / Trailer

Because if there's one thing everyone wants more than Shia LaBeouf, it's Shia LaBeouf sporting a mullet and pony-tail combination set, armed with a moral compass that would make D*nald Tr*mp nod approvingly*1, right?

Trapped in a life that's only just one step up from a trailer-park, Star (Sasha Lane) yearns for more. She doesn't know what exactly, but a chance encounter with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and a group of disparate young travellers selling magazine subscriptions from town to town sees her take a punt on a new path. But as the pecking order of the collective becomes apparent, Star has to reconcile what she's left behind with what she can meaningfully gain from her new surroundings…

First things first: for a road movie, American Honey sure takes its time. Not its time in getting started, just in deciding where it's going. Like an extended journey with people you largely don't like and none of them have remembered to bring a map but they're loaded with more bad hip-hop than you can shake a stick at. It never bored or annoyed me, but the thought occurred on more than one occasion that a film this damned long should really have more content (for reference, you could watch the rise and fall of Tony Montana and still have a whole minute's change).

And It's a brave cinematographer who makes a movie in 3:4 aspect-ratio in this day and age. Braver still when the entire film is shot on a hand-held camera and jump-cut edited together. This often feels like watching someone's home-video footage, especially in the car-interior scenes, although I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment. While everyone's relatively comfortable on camera, there's a lack of direction to these group scenes both figuratively and cinematically (although not literally, as the people-carrier is moving undeniably forwards, I'll give it that). On top of that, the mumbled dialogue (which often has all the hallmarks of improvised lines performed by non-actors) is one thing, but combine that with an atrocious sound-mix when there's anything other than mumbled dialogue and you'll be praying for subtitles by the half-hour mark.

But on the plus side (for all my moaning before and after this paragraph, it's a fascinating movie), the camera finds the landscape and wildlife of America far more interesting than the cast, and a Peter Pan / Lost Boys theme peeks its head through from time to time*2, enough to be intriguing, although it really isn't developed the way it could be.

At its core though, I just didn't really get the film. I didn't feel excluded by what was happening, but there was a cultural gap I just couldn't cross. As well as the characters selling what I'm assuming were entirely non-existent magazine subscriptions, the setup itself was something I found hard to relate to. As much as Star is a sympathetic character, the problem (for me) could be that the closest we have in the UK to these groups is those packs of cause-hopping charity muggers that roam the high-streets with clipboards and annoying personalities. The ones I systematically blank or avoid without fail. This film certainly didn't endear me to the mindset, although I'm not sure it's meant to, to be honest.

I should probably have liked American Honey more*3 (in fact, I know I should), but the aspects I enjoyed were outweighed by the ones I either didn't or just didn't get. Much like the central character's journey, the film ambles along without rules or responsibility. It's something to be applauded in theory, but I just couldn't relax when I was expecting someone to be murdered for most of the movie. Although the film occasionally strays into dark quarters, it never lingers there too long and there doesn't seem to be any moral or narrative consequence of it happening. I'd even fine with the noncommittal ending if it hadn't followed a noncommittal story.

I know I'm missing something obvious and massive, but what's with the recurring insect-theme? Answers in the comments, please.

I think my favourite bit could be the drugged-up weirdo*4, sleepwalking around a parking lot and mumbling about the spice-mines of Kessel. As Star Wars references go, it's hard to beat and something we don't even get in Kevin Smith's movies…

So, watch this if you enjoyed?
All of the unease of murdery road-trip movies, but little of the drama.

Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
It's shot in handheld, 3:4 aspect-ratio.
With the best will in the world, it's not designed for the cinema

Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Oh probably, I don't know.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
I have no idea.
Sasha Lane is good, though

Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Not at all.

Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not at all.

Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Well, Shia was in that Indiana Jones movie that no-one except me likes alongside Captain Solo himself, Harrison Ford.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yeah, I know that Shia is an Actor and he's Acting. But we both know that Shia's kinda troubled off-the-camera, too. It doesn't make for easy-watching

*2 Although with the lead character being called Star and shots of the group jumping through a makeshift bonfire, the film arguably owes less to the Peter Pan mythos than it does to the actual Lost Boys movie itself. Another reason I kept expecting someone to be killed, imminently.

*3 And y'know, I like Lady Antebellum as much as the next guy (maybe a little more, actually), but when you specifically namecheck their song which is also the title of the film in act one, then pretend to resist playing it until five minutes before the end? That shit seems shoehorned, no end.

*4 In fact, I assume that she was drunk or drugged-up, but for a lot of the film I couldn't tell who was engaging in substance-abuse and who was just vulnerable and with learning-difficulties. In a film like this it could be either, frankly, and the fact that it isn't really explored at all is worrying in itself...

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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