Wednesday, October 12, 2016

American Honey - running away on a swindling road trip (QFT 14-27 October)

Star (played by newcomer Sasha Lane) is a spirited eighteen year old who walks out (technically climbs out) of an unhealthy relationship with a dopey partner and hands her two younger siblings back to her aghast mother. Making a clean break she follows the promise of a job offered by twinkly-eyed Jake (overplayed by Shia LaBeouf) and hops on board a minibus with a group of disturbed misfits who were passing through town.

The larcenous mastermind of American Honey is Krystal (Riley Keough) who directs the crew as they move from town to town selling magazine subscriptions through pity, lies and whatever other means they can use to swindle money from the oft-suspecting householders. The only person getting rich is Krystal, who keeps the bulk of the takings to cover “overheads” and experiments with different sales psychology in different neighbourhoods. Robin Hood only robbed the rich, but Krystal has fewer moral qualms.

She encourages her cult-like followers with a daily peptalk and they bond over animalistic high jinks in the car parks and anthems wailed out while they’re on the road. Despite the rough living conditions, the painful forfeits for being lowest earner of the week and the guys behaving like Donald Trump in a locker room, the purposeless chuggers seem to trap themselves in the itinerant cycle of misselling until Krystal spits them out and abandons them by the side of the road.

Star adapts her street skills to the new challenges, but loses something of herself in the process as she becomes entangled with Jake.

I’m in two opinions about American Honey. I both like it and dislike it.
“You’re a kind of a crazy one aren’t you?”

If anything, we see too much of LaBeouf on screen and too little of Keough (in terms of screen time even if little else is left to the imagination). Jake never quite lives up to his reputation as a selling guru while Krystal’s mean streak is mostly left hanging as threat rather than action.

The run time is far too long. Like everything about the style of the film, it must have been a very deliberate decision by director Andrea Arnold to allow the action and inaction to linger on screen for 163 minutes. Just as he chose a 4:3 aspect ratio that focuses attention on characters’ heads rather than the landscape. The epic duration allows space for a fabulous soundtrack and introduces a little of the monotony of driving up the highway to the cinemagoing audience.

The sex and its moaning and groaning adds little to the storyline but instead stretches the bladders of the audience and adds another layer of exploitation to the film. As exploitation movies go, this must be one of the greatest onions in the genre. Magazines that may not even exist are offered by exploited youths to people who are exploited into buying into ambitions that they know they can never afford. The hapless subscribers hand over cash to kids who in turn hand it over to Krystal. A metaphor for aspirational consumerism.

Lane is totally believable as she blends vulnerability with eighteen year old confidence and a fair dollop of arrogance as the film’s lead. As an actor she rescues the film, yet her spirited character Star may not yet be able to rescue herself and climb out of her new honey trap. Yet even half a day after the film credits rolled, I’m not sure whether Star’s ‘journey’ merits the bum-numbing investment in the improvised dialogue and the enervated plot. A film to ponder.

American Honey opens in the UK on Friday and if you had the stamina to endure The Revenant then this is only 7 minutes longer and you can catch it in the Queen’s Film Theatre until 27 October.

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