There is a definite Larry Clark influence on American Honey – the bubble-world of kids, music, drifting, drugs, booze, sex – but with an important difference.
The film is completely – to the point of irrealism – centred on its main character, Star (Sasha Lane). We never follow anybody else in her travelling “crew”; we don’t ever really learn how any of them manage to do their job – which is the odd (in the 21st century) practice of selling magazines door to door, a strange, American subculture of work that drew British writer-director Andrea Arnold’s attention.
In this sense, the film is part of an intriguing trend in contemporary cinema: an ultra-focalisation on the point-of-view (POV) of a single, central figure. The trend may well have its roots in a masterpiece like the Dardennes’ Rosetta (1999); but it has since become coin of the realm in a certain kind of hyper-subjective, sensation-based cinema associated with Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void, 2009) and Darren Aronofsky (Mother!, 2017).
For her customisation of this style, Arnold sticks to a particularly rigid POV system, especially noticeable in the numerous scenes set inside the moving van: the film is only ever with or right next to her – there is not even a single view of her from the other end of the vehicle! This wilful truncating of possibilities for coverage, découpage, and a more flexible directorial “regard” can seem, at moments, defiantly Bressonian. But, as happens even with the Dardennes, the adoption of such a strict parti pris can also create a host of narrational problems (on the level of: who exactly is doing what here?).
Nonetheless, such POV experiments suit Arnold, whose previous, often impressive work has been illuminatingly analysed (by critic-scholars including Catherine Grant) as “Bionic” – i.e., embodying (consciously or not) the dynamic articulation of inner and outer worlds, and the transitional steps taken between them (successfully or not), as theorised by the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1897-1979).
American Honey serves up a plot deliberately lacking or refusing almost any of its expected, dramatic consequences. Unlike, in this sense, the Larry Clark model, there is no unwanted pregnancy, no question of abortion, no fatal, sexual disease, no rape or assault. Such issues loom (mainly in our own, genre-trained heads as spectators), and then gently disperse with the breeze.
The only real, dramatic foci of the action are the maybe/maybe not love-problem between Star and Jake (Shia LaBeouf), and a bit of power-play mystery centred on the crew’s boss, Krystal (Riley Keough from Season 1 of The Girlfriend Experience).
The film has – characteristically for Arnold – some lovely interrelations of music and movement. The use of metaphor (in this case, bug metaphors) is somewhat clumsy. And the plot tends to multiply (partly as a result of its ultra-focus) niggling questions of believability, and the challenges of balancing its various pieces and elements. One could argue that the project’s anthropological or ethnographic element – a peculiar slice of Americana as seen by an outsider, a sub-genre that has for a long time cast a dark cloud of (American) suspicion over projects by directors from Michelangelo Antonioni and Jacques Demy to Bruno Dumont and Wong Kar-wai – doesn’t mesh too well with the basic POV strategy adopted by Arnold.
For example, it’s a little hard to accept that only Star, of the whole crew, acts up and acts out, that she misbehaves, lives out an excess … she’s even the sole member to fall in love! The other workers (many of whom look, at first glance, like renegades from a Larry Clark teen gang) seem, bizarrely, all so well behaved, sticking to their set, administered rituals for letting off steam …
Ultimately, American Honey drifts so far and so much – talk of a much longer cut circulated at its London premiere – that it has trouble finding an ending. The one that comes along – Star’s head in water – draws on an unfortunately widespread audiovisual cliché. The film tends to repeat its few narrative moves far too often. And other clichés fill out the languorous spaces and times – such as a Breaking Bad-style glimpse of a family of kids obliviously toddling around a drugged-out mother, an apparition that also reappears for an episode or so of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).
In the contemporary landscape of film distribution and exhibition, American Honey seems, a year later, to have come and gone mighty quickly – it’s disappeared, almost without a trace, into the churning sea of independent releases. In this lull, it has yet to be reclaimed and championed by specialised fans (and Arnold has many) within the academic industries. The moment has yet to arrive when it will be taken up within a wider “network” of film and TV that may illuminate it beyond its specific successes and failures as an individual piece.
Arnold herself, in the meantime, has moved on to the project of directing the entire second season of Big Little Lies – a prospect which bodes well.
© Adrian Martin December 2016 / 13 December 2017