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.