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Review: American Honey

October 14, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

american-honey-posterA passion project for director Andrea Arnold, American Honey is an epic in its own right.  This is an exhilarating road movie that quietly explores the hidden pockets of America where real people live their lives, struggling with ways to make money and dealing with the reality of dreams dashed to poverty.

Escaping her troubled life in Texas, which includes dumpster diving for food and taking care of her two younger siblings, Star (Sasha Lane) runs away from home and hits the road with a crew of poverty-stricken youth who travel the country in a white van, selling magazine subscriptions in rich neighbourhoods.

Star gets teamed up with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a slick and unpredictable hustler who sets out to show her the tricks of the trade, and also embarks on an affair with him that seems built purely around physical passion.  This puts her at odds with group leader Krystal (Riley Keough), who sees the unpredictable Star as a threat to her business.  As the group drives across the Midwest, singing along to songs as they roll down the highway and sleeping at motels, they party, do drugs and have sex, all with a sort of primal energy.

Clocking in at close to three hours, American Honey will test the patience of some, but I found it to flow with a rhythm that becomes almost hypnotic to watch, a film more interested in evoking moods than having a traditional plot.  Like in her acclaimed breakout feature Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold is interested in capturing character moments that flesh out the worlds of young women who remain resilient and headstrong despite poverty and unstable living conditions.  Here she has delivered a film that not only has her signature gritty realism to it, but also an energy that makes it all feel positively alive.

A newcomer to the screen, Sasha Lane is transfixing to watch throughout every scene, carrying the film with a magnetic and almost instinctual performance that is all the more impressive for being her acting debut.  Andrea Arnold initially discovered her on a beach during spring break and asked her to audition based on her look, and she emerges like a true breakout star.  Shia Labeauf delivers one of his finest performances, blurring the line between character and actor in an exciting way, as he infuses Jake with unhinged and almost manic energy that permeates through the screen.  Much of the supporting cast is made up of unknown young actors, who give the film a compellingly naturalistic feel.

This is matched by a largely improvised script and the impressive, often handheld camerawork.  Robbie Ryan’s free flowing cinematography keeps us gripped, framed within a square aspect ratio that helps make the characters feel boxed in, while also seeming wide open as they dot across the sprawling roads and desolate landscapes.  The soundtrack offers an entire playlist of great tracks, giving way to several beautifully done musical sequences that either burst with energy or pack an emotional wallop, including unforgettable uses of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” and Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey,” which gives the film its title.

Like all great road movies, American Honey is a film that allows us to get lost in the journey, and all the joyful, somber and unexpectedly moving moments that come along the way.  One of the film’s best and most poignant scenes finds Star taking a ride with a kind older trucker, who becomes an almost paternal figure and asks about her dreams for the future.  It’s a touching moment on its own terms, and also represents a passing of the torch if you will between an old, fading side of America and the young people who represent the country’s future but haven’t really been given the means to inherit it.

Playing with a deep undercurrent of heartbreak that is fully indicative of the struggles faced by real people just trying to get ahead in this day and age, American Honey is a major achievement, a film that captures the feeling of being young and all the spontaneity and energy that comes alongside it.  Filled with vivid, iconic images of people being alive, this is a sprawling, engaging and beautifully filmed portrait of youth lost in America, that is easy to get lost in and has many moments that leave a lasting impact.  Rarely has the true sense of being young, wild and free been so indelibly captured on film.

American Honey is opening today in limited release in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, and is set to expand to other markets in Canada on October 21st.

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