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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea, which had its UK premiere at the London Film Festival on Saturday night, is his mere third outing as a director. And his tertiary effort might just be his most mature, melancholic and majestic work yet. A story about a working-class Massachusetts family, to whom fate has not been kind, and the ubiquity of grief, Manchester By the Sea is the kind of subdued, sobering experience that doesn’t lend itself to mainstream attention. But seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Casey Affleck, building upon a roster of roles he’s tackled with a tortured intensity, (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Gone Baby Gone) is Lee Chandler, a man whom life has chewed up and spat out and whom when we meet him is barely existing. Alternately abrasive and aloof, Lee is a competent if uncongenial handyman for 4 apartment buildings in Boston. Between the bar where he instigates fights with strangers to the one-bed squat where he falls asleep in front of the TV, beer in hand, there’s a sense of deadening routine which scarcely manages to distract from the deep-seated troubles which appear to plague our protagonist.

On a morning like any other, snow shovel looming mid-air, Lee receives a call that obliges his return to the humble New England hometown he vacated a few years previous. His affable, and well-liked older brother Joe (played by real-life Chandler, Kyle) has died of a cardiac arrest and bestowed guardianship of his 16-year-old son Patrick (a vibrant Lucas Hedges) upon a reluctant Lee. This abrupt, though not altogether unforeseen bereavement, forces Lee to confront a place and a past sheltering an unspeakable tragedy that splintered the community, and continues to reverberate amid these tight-knit people.

Seek it out and you’ll discover something of wrenching power and quiet, arresting beauty.

Lonergan, the eloquent mind and steady hand behind the handsomely-mounted, character-driven dramas You Can Count On Me and Margaret, continues to demonstrate an ear poetically attuned to the nuances of quotidian speech and the inadequacies of it in communicating our emotions. Manchester By the Sea is a richly textured tapestry of awkward moments, strained interactions and everyday encounters, coursing with authenticity and elevated by the electrifying humanism with which they are depicted.

As Lee drags Patrick through the requisite funereal proceedings, their interactions are at once endearing, comedic and searingly sad. Affleck and Hedges possess a chemistry that surpasses some of the most memorable romantic duos, their heated back and forth enlivening the morbid circumstances with pacy, familial rhythms. Both are desperate to get back to their fragile normalities. For Patrick this involves hockey and band practices, dating two girls at the same time and looking after his father’s boat. For Lee, that’s recoiling to his stony, siloed existence in Boston as quickly as arrangements dictate. Both must negotiate the ripples that this event has on their futures.

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As such, this story toes a familiar line, but with a seldom-seen ability to capture a smorgasbord of human emotion. Moments of wrenching poignancy are punctuated with a tart, caustic humour; from a freezer-induced meltdown to a bungled attempt at lovemaking, you’ll find the laughter catches in your throat as tears roll down your cheeks. As Lonergan invokes this melting pot of love, frustration, anguish, hilarity and clumsiness, he deftly eschews cliche and melodrama, instead leaving incisive, elegiac impressions, as his characters amble their way through the mire, clashing and compromising and composing themselves as well as they can.

Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb.

Lonergan and his director of photography Jody Lee Lipes (who has done phenomenal work on indie movies such a Martha, Marcy, May Marlene and the underrated Bluebird), do a sensational job of capturing the stillness and sameness of the landscape. Lensed with a crisp elegance, the harsh winters and choppy waters are beautifully rendered, giving sense to a place and a people frozen in time. Less effective is the sound design, which sometimes threatens to overpower; especially when the other elements are so subtle and restrained.

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Still, it’s easy to forgive when the film is otherwise utterly engrossing. Lonergan continues to excel at coaxing naturalistic and heart-breaking performances from his actors. Casey Affleck is given the lead role he deserves in Lee Chandler, and hits every grief-stricken note with painstaking aplomb. Lucas Hedges, meanwhile, is a quick-witted and wilful screen presence, nailing the self-centred braggadocio of a popular teenager but with an impressive charm and sensitivity. Kyle Chandler is reliably rugged and paternal as the pillar of the Chandler family – it’s a talented actor who can really make you feel their absence when their death occurs before they’ve even appeared on the screen. Speaking of minimal scenes, Michelle Williams also gives a shattering performance in her all-too-brief role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi; effusing the kind of verisimilitude for which she was praised in Blue Valentine, and which should hopefully garner her supporting actress nominations come awards season.

Manchester By the Sea could be accused of dealing audiences an unsatisfactory ending, but it works in the context of a film that resounds with a muted ache and authenticity. I can’t stop thinking about it – in the way that all films possessed of this much wisdom, warmth and woe – leave you reeling and feeling fortunate to have seen it.