Review: American Honey

I recently watched Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights and was struck by its tactile ferocity. The way almost every touch and glance simmered with raw, vengeful intent. Each shot throbbed with the sense that something urgent and new had to be said. If Arnold’s adaptation of Bronte was distilled to its quintessential themes of pain, anger and love, then American Honey – her fourth feature in ten years –  could just as easily be outlined as such, except with the added inclusion of hope.

Despite the notable use of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ (in a hopeless place), against a backdrop of a poverty-stricken America where children appear to roam as free as chickens, Arnold’s vision is never as unflinching or brutal as Precious, Winter’s Bone or other films with young women in destitute situations. Instead it fizzles with an exuberant, and frequently, erotic energy. And so Arnold continues to prove herself a superlative storyteller of narratives of female sexual awakening.


Our insight into this world comes via the wily yet naive Star, an Oklahoma-dwelling Texan native, played with immense magnetism and mischief by newcomer Sasha Lane. So incandescent is Lane as the impetuous teenager who abandons her downtrodden existence for an uninhibited life on the road, it’s no wonder Arnold spotted her on a beach in Panama City and offered her the part, captivated by her myriad tattoos and free spirit, no doubt sensing that her audience would be too.

In the most economic sequence of the film, Arnold quickly establishes Star’s dead-end day-to-day; scavenging through dumpsters for dinner, hitchhiking for rides with her weary half-siblings in tow and resisting the advances of her leering father.

So when Shia LaBeouf makes eyes at her across the aisles of a Walmart to the soundtrack of an anthemic pop song (a 21st century meet-cute if ever there was one), we have reason to suspect this is the first time Star has reciprocated attraction for her male admirer. And therefore it makes sense in this context that Star might up and leave to join a rat-pack of strays and tearaways who stay in ramshackle motels and flog magazine subscriptions to midwestern Americans.

LaBeouf is Jake; the No.1 sales guy in this motley crew of mag-merchants and the rat-tailed rebel without a cause.  But for all his hubristic flirtation and ‘give-a-shit’ persona, the head honcho of the operation is Krystal – a devil in a metallic bikini – embodied with steely-eyed un-sisterly-ness by Riley Keough (extraordinary in the TV series The Girlfriend Experience). She immediately senses a rival for Jake’s affections and it’s clear from the off that her provision of bed and board for her ‘employees’ doesn’t extend to protection.


And so as Star’s journey begins with dangers and diversions aplenty, the plot sort of retires, instead favouring a ravishing, sprawling, glistening dream sequence approach, where encounters with cowboys, truckers and bears all merge into a meditative and frequently, explosive experiential soup. Star’s fellow companions are a tangle of limbs and dodgy highlights, who fizzle and fight with a liquored-up frenetic energy, but whom we never find more out about than from what state they came from. Arnold’s focus is unerringly on her increasingly daring heroine, who rejects the tried-and-tested sob story sales technique, in favour of the ‘truth’ and lands herself in more than a handful of hot-water situations.

One of which is the rousing chemistry she and Jake share; illustrated in two of this year’s (or perhaps any year’s) most tender and tangible sex scenes. If they can overcome Jake’s volatile temper and Krystal’s watchful eye, the idea of a future beyond petty crime and alcohol-swilling suddenly seems graspable. It’s a red-blooded, Badlands-esque romance brought to kinetic life by committed, scorching performances from Sasha and Shia.


Part of the reason this film resonates is because of its loyal focus – to the exclusion of almost all other perspectives – on Star’s story. Female road trip narratives are hard to come by; that sort of transgressive, primitive trajectory was inherently masculinised, a self-made mythology woven into the fabric of the West and at odds with the domesticated experience women were expected to have. Therefore to have been gifted with a film that not only depicts what that might look like, but does so in such an illuminating, coruscating and unending way, must be applauded.

True, the endless repetition of fighting, drinking, partying and pilfering begins to tire as the road stretches forever onwards, but never seems to go anywhere. However, no-one could argue that this isn’t a beautiful and atmospheric journey to go on. Arnold’s recurrent cinematographer Robbie Ryan gives a virtuoso performance, capturing the landscape – at once gritty and ethereal – in a series of sun-dappled, light-speckled, honey-coloured hues. If it’s romanticised, it’s only because it’s filtered through the hazy lens of ecstatic youth.


The soundtrack and editing likewise do more than pull their weight in anchoring this vision of Americana nirvana. From the kaleidoscopic musical accompaniments, featuring everything from Springsteen and Lady Antebellum to Ludacris and Lil Wayne, to the freewheeling yet often tightly-focused camerawork, each element serves Arnold’s hallucinogenic adventure. Despite the vast terrain and protracted running time, Arnold’s is a searingly intimate picture, reinforced by her favoured use of an Academy aspect ratio.

In that sense, American Honey never tries to be more than a surreal, soulful and subjective depiction of one young woman being catapulted into a world far more unpredictable than she imagined. And for that reason it succeeds – perhaps not on a narrative level, but on an emotional and visual level, it soars.

Review: Lost River

With Ryan Gosling attached as it’s director, Lost River, previously title ‘How to Catch a Monster’, was always going to be enveloped by a certain level of expectation. The star of Blue Valentine, The Notebook, Place Beyond The Pines and Drive had a lot to live up to, and when the film premiered at Cannes the general mood was one of disappointment.

Released in cinemas and on VOD today in the UK, the buzz ignites once again and this time around the reception seems to be more generous. If not entirely coherent or consistent, at the very least, Lost River is a phatasmagorical adventure you’ll want to bear witness to.


Gosling’s debut explores the turbulent journey of Bones (Iain De Caestecker), a young man who’s family is on the brink of eviction, whose mother (Christina Hendricks) is doing everything she can to pay the bills and who is pursued by a post-apocalyptic, microphone-brandishing tyrant named Bully (Matt Smith).

lost-river-trailer-christina-hendricksIt begins drenched in nostalgia, with dappled lighting, a lullaby song and meadows indicating the innocence of childhood dreams. An innocence which quickly gives way to a nightmarish vision of corruption. As the camera careens past abandoned homes and decaying neighbourhoods, weaving through scenes of violence, despair and destruction, Gosling injects the fabric of the film with bright neon colours, pulsating synth music, and fairytale imagery.

The result is something as visually arresting as it is atmospherically rich, evoking the 1955 cult classic Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum. Both have a sinister glow, intertwining thriller and fantasy elements to create something idiosyncratic, film noirish, avante garde, dream-like, expressionistic and strange.

Early on, I felt that the jaunty camera movement and lighting gave the film a transient, watery texture; an intention seemingly confirmed in Saoirse Ronan’s Rat alluding to the town being “underwater”. Yet other directorial decisions felt unfounded or merely distracting. The editing is at times unnecessarily jumpy, whilst at other times incredibly meandering. There’s a very keen sense that Gosling is trying to show all of his visionary skills in one film, and it consequently suffers from a chaotic, erratic tone.


Gosling is clearly a cinophile; absorbing and integrating a composite of influences and aesthetics into his ambitious debut. It has the eeriness of Lynch, the bizarreness of Malick, the flashiness of Spring Breakers, the neo-noir essence of Refn, and infuses the same desolate whimsicality as last year’s Beasts of a Southern Wild, all whilst invoking a sense of uniqueness. But this imagistic assemblage is also the film’s downfall; with the overarching stylisation coming so prominently to the fore it threatens to derail the narrative.

be783e9951e22422217984336f84d412_cannes-2014_4The characters are a colourful menagerie of villains, vagrants and victims. Christina Hendricks as single mother Billy does a great job of centring the film emotionally; a task the other ‘lead’ Caestecker in his detached delivery doesn’t quite manage. Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes meanwhile provide provocative cameos as both owner and star of a grotesque horror-themed nightclub Billy becomes embroiled in. Mendelsohn particularly elevates every scene he is in, oozing with a malicious lust and giving Michael Jackson a run for his money in the ‘moves’ department.


Yet, for all the fleeting shots of brilliance – and there are plenty – alongside Gosling’s tendency to hone in on his actor’s face and let their expressions do the talking, there is a distinct lack of depth, motivation or grit to any of his creations. They are as desultory as the names they are given. Intriguing but utterly random.

Ostensibly, it tackles the Detroit foreclosure crisis and the damaging effect of the fiscal crisis on an already impoverished community. And it does so with sensitivity and an understanding that its residents are trapped in a nightmarish bubble – a theme lent authenticity by the presence of actual Detroiters – where bankruptcy, eviction and collapse ominously threaten. This portentous atmosphere looms throughout, frequently bubbling to the surface in macabre (and often random) exchanges. However, there’s something incomplete and unrefined about the film as a whole.

Lost River‘s strength like in its visual audacity and ability to conjure up a hallucinatory landscape, whilst  the phosporescent lighting and eclectic sound design are particularly reminiscent of Drive, (in a good way). It’s deviation from traditional narrative structures however won’t satiate everyone’s palate and there’s definitely a need for more substance behind the style.

Ultimately, Ryan Gosling continues to cast audiences under a spell, even from behind the camera and he shows great artistic potential as a director, but the overriding niggle is that his story got as lost as the river.

Verdict: Mesmerising, frustrating and bold. Gosling has splashed his cinematic canvas with as many colours as he could find, and it makes for a coruscating experience. Let’s hope his follow-up has just as much panache, but a little less abstraction. 

PS. I saw the actual Ryan Gosling and Matt Smith at a live Q+A hosted by Ritzy Picturehouse, and certainly hearing about Gosling’s intentions and inspirations for the film gave me an appreciation for it that might otherwise have been lacking. Then again, he did make eye contact with me, so I might have just been swayed by that.

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Review: Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful)

Young and Beautiful (2013)

            Directed by: François Ozon. Starring: Marine Vatch, Géraldine PailhasFrédéric Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling

 Francois Ozon delivers an unsentimental and stylish portrayal of teenage prostitution, and catapults the alluring Marine Vacth to mainstream attention.

Starting with a family holiday in a seaside location, Ozon depicts the gradual loss of innocence of the detached Isabelle. With a taciturn manner that transcends the ordinarily sulky teenager, Isabelle is on the precipice of sexual discovery. And what she finds out takes her on a very unusual journey indeed.

A voyeuristic tone is immediately established – a trope those of whom are well versed in Ozon will be familiar with. His previous film In the House saw a teenage boy spying on a middle-class family, similarly Jeune et Jolie opens with a young boy staring through binoculars at a topless teenage girl on the beach (a strangeness further compounded by our discovering that he is the girl’s brother).

Equally reflective of In the House, is Ozon’s interest in the discontent induced by the trappings of middle-class suburbia. Isabelle wants for nothing. Her family indulge in theatre visits, dinner parties and discussions of skiing holidays, and yet Isabelle becomes increasingly distant.

Strategically losing her virginity to a German boy, Isabelle finds herself disinterested and frostily unresponsive during the experience itself. Inexplicably, the narrative jumps to a new season and to Isabelle’s new life as a prostitute, wherein she arranges meetings via texts and arrives at hotels in heels and a blouse stolen from her mother, with little clue as what to expect.

jeune-et-jolie-marine-vacth-03-636-370Ozon refrains from criticizing nor legitimising Isabelle’s lifestyle. Nor does he explain away or justify her motivations. Indeed, the film jumps from the family holiday to Isabelle’s persona as the infinitely more glamorous and mature  ‘Lea’ firmly established. As she encounters a variety of customers – some tender and ‘ordinary’, to the downright derogatory and sadistic, Isabelle hardly bats an eyelid and complies with every request. She falls into a routine of concealing her double-life, telling her parent’s she’s off with friends and her friends that she’s a virgin. There’s no hint as to the pleasure Isabelle obtains from these on-goings; the money she stashes in her wardrobe and Vacth exudes a cool disinterest, her steely exterior belying the sadness brimming in her eyes.jeune-jolie 2

It’s clear Ozon wants to replicate the allure experienced for ‘Lea’s’ customers for the audience. With her tousled hair, rouge lips and come hither bedroom eyes, Vacth is one of the most arresting young actresses to have appeared on screen in recent years. One certainly doesn’t object to her considerable screen time.

And yet the lifestyle itself is unremittingly gritty. Although the money is high-end, Isabelle’s encounters are pretty bleak and soulless; a style conveyed through the stark, minimalist design of the hotels or the uncomfortable and mechanical setting of a car. Pretty Woman this isn’t. Whilst the Parisian aesthetic arguably adds a glamour to proceedings, with sleek interiors and ‘Lea’s’ uniform exuding class, Isabelle’s repeated habit of showering after her encounters acknowledges the seedier side to the job. Isabelle feels tainted, or as she states ‘dirty’.

However, Jeune et Jolie falters in its ability to generate sympathy or attachment to the characters. Vatch is beautiful to look at, and delivers a nuanced and beguiling performance, but her spoilt-rich kid persona and seeming boredom, give us little emotional depth to invest in. Vacth nails this vacuity and moody silence, but the lack of passion in her characterization and her love life make it difficult for us to feel that way about the film itself. Even when she engages in a ‘proper’ relationship for the first time, her automated, almost habitual response to her boyfriend’s bedroom struggles signal an absence of real feeling.

It would perhaps be too simple to dismiss the seasonal structuring of the film as exemplary of the continuing, cyclical nature of this problem. If Isabelle is eventually dissuaded from such a lifestyle, Ozon certainly doesn’t intimate that this is an inherently solvable issue. Indeed, it throws up more questions than it cares to answers, and revels in its open-ended complexity. Although a sense of resolution is proffered in the shape of a more age-appropriate and sexually inexperienced boyfriend, Isabelle’s interest wanes quickly and given her closest companion in the film was a silver-haired pensioner you expect it won’t last.


The other performances in the film are certainly worthy of mention. Geraldine Pailhas as Isabelle’s mother Sylvie perfectly communicates the frustrated disapproval and exasperation of a woman who has no idea how to relate to, or understand her daughter. The two actresses – especially during a confrontation scene – depict their strained relationship with conviction and poignancy. Isabelle’s stepfather (Frederic Pierrot) provides a kinder contrast to her haughty mother, though one suspects this isn’t the ideal approach when Isabelle turns on the call-girl charm during a late-night conversation. Meanwhile, the cameo from Charlotte Rampling toward the end, though dignified and emotive, feels somewhat contrived and pulls you out of the film slightly.

I particularly enjoyed the film’s depiction of the varying responses elicited by Isabelle’s transformation. Whilst the women are seen to feel threatened or wary of her, the men seem more forgiving and Isabelle’s therapist (a male) even validates her earnings, where her mother wishes to confiscate them.

Where fellow French film and story of sexual awakening Blue is the Warmest Colour revelled in intimacy, insight and subversion, giving us the perspective and voice of a young girl discovering her sexual identity, Jeune et Jolie falters. It skates along the surface of its subject matter, but never peels beyond the layers of its heroine’s clothes. Ozon’s decision to remain at an emotional distance from Isabelle and leave all possible conclusions open-ended, he risks excluding Isabelle’s perspective altogether, merely conveying a stylish male fantasy rather than a sincere portrayal of a young woman’s turbulent path to sexual maturity.

 Verdict: Uneven in tone and more surface than substance, this is nevertheless, a film as beautiful, intriguing and provocative as it’s lead actress.