Written & Directed by Andrea Arnold Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough Film Review by Dean Pettipher
Just less than six decades have now passed since the novel entitled On the Road (1957) was first published. The literary work, written by the late John Kerouac (1922-1969), featured a distinctly spontaneous style of prose that allowed the author and this semi-autobiographical work in particular to play equally integral parts in defining both the Beat and the Counterculture generations. The winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, American Honey (2016) beautifully illustrates that the predominant sentiments of Kerouac’s Beat generation especially are more relevant and in fact more timeless than even the literary pioneer himself would ever imagine. One needs only to ponder for a moment over the following extract from the novel, which, like the movie in focus at present, recounts soul-searching and thrill-seeking travels of young people across the United States of America, to understand why:
"I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance."
- John Kerouac (1922-1969), On the Road (1957)
Even though the novel is set against an older version of the same backdrop, the addictively gorgeous chaos depicted by Kerouac’s writing has been equally matched through the art of film by Andrea Arnold and her team of artists in American Honey, which is a relief, not least because the still fairly recent adaption of Kerouac’s book, released under the same name, On the Road (2012), was aesthetically stunning and commendably faithful to the source material, but ultimately severely lacked a fundamental emotional depth in the telling of Kerouac’s great story of characters who were desperate to make the most out of their lives and their fleeting youth in particular. By comparison, in spite of some painful frustrations that ostensibly seem deliberately caused by the filmmakers for the right reasons, but ultimately could have easily been avoided without harming the film’s overall impact in their absence, Arnold’s original screenplay depicting the current generation of young people features an astonishing level of authenticity in its bitterly truthful presentation of struggles faced by almost all millennials, which had, until now, never been quite so accurately caught on camera. Authenticity here results mainly from camera work that looks just as spontaneous as Kerouac’s prose, magnificently varied imagery of the American Midwest, as well as controlled and heartfelt performances from the entire cast. Thus, the similarities between the Beat culture and the culture of the present decade are clear, most notably a rejection of standard values, a spiritual quest, experimentation with mind-altering drugs and sexual liberation. At the heart of the adventure, presented as the tipping point prior to its beginning and the constant source of sweetness right up until its conclusion, are frustrations with broken political and social constructs that have finally reached and exceeded their limits. What follows is a fight against those long-entrenched class systems of behaviour and the search for something better in an American tale that could not be more relevant to the youth culture of today, especially in the USA, while the nation braces itself for the potentially earth-shattering consequences of what has become one of the most shocking presidential election battles to date.
Arnold has previously shown through directing and penning the script for Fish Tank (2009) that she is able to highlight formerly unseen facets of often misunderstood factions of society and in the process create an admirable sense of warmth through vibrant and wide-ranging imagery in the otherwise fairly cold-hearted corners of the world that her characters inhabit. In the case of the aforementioned movie, which incidentally also won the Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize in 2009, Arnold presented a 15-year-old girl, Mia Williams, needing to embrace adulthood quickly in order to deal with various obstacles that she faced within her home environment, which was situated in a deprived area of Essex in the UK. Similarly, in American Honey, Arnold presents audiences with 18-year-old Star, who bravely fights against difficult circumstances stemming from her underprivileged home environment, in search of excitement following a sudden epiphany. On her travels, Star’s passing through poor and wealthy neighbourhoods situated in sometimes vastly different natural environments, which only America could host, is consistently presented in such a way that is beautiful but honest simultaneously. The imagery is accompanied by a soundtrack of popular rap, R & B, country and what some might call ‘classic’ modern dance songs, including the famous Rihanna tune known for its ability to inspire hopeless romantic optimism in spite of severe disillusionment with one’s deceptive reality. The result is a calling for audiences young and old to shamelessly escape into the joy of the present moment.
Arnold’s employment of symbolism throughout the film is equally masterful, especially when talismans shared between the primary ensemble cast of the film are used to indicate key stages of character development, or when the Confederacy colours are utilized brilliantly in a scene that allures through guilty sensual pleasures while consciously not being coy about the dangers of blindly submitting to those particular desires. The symbolism on the whole is used in a manner that manages to seem perfectly rateable and it almost always avoids feeling blatantly contrived or too obvious.
￼ The three leading actors of American Honey are all compelling in equal measure. Riley Keough, one of the most beautiful actresses working in Hollywood today, gracefully portrays the movie’s principle antagonist in the form of a stunning but ruthless Southern Belle. Having recently commanded the spotlight of television with her leading role in The Girlfriend Experience (2016-Present), Keough illustrates in her latest movie part that she is more than capable of taking on roles in the future that do not need to capitalize on her bountiful outer beauty, even if she suits such parts just as well. Shia LaBeouf, following on from his impressive supporting role in Fury (2014) has pulled off the admirable feat of keeping his career moving forward, even in the wake of his still fairly recent legal controversies. In spite of his character’s arrogant tendencies, he remains as charming and as charismatic now as he did when he occupied the movie world’s attention as the leading man of the Transformers series (2007-2011). Finally, Sasha Lane could be one to watch following what is an excellent film debut. American Honey could do for Lane what Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015) has done for John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, even if the former film received a fraction of the publicity thrived upon by the latter production. Regardless, the energy that Lane brings to the bold but naïve protagonist of this American road trip suggests that she undoubtedly made the most of her big screen introduction.
There are a few major irritations that for some could all but totally tarnish American Honey by the time the credits roll. First off, running for approximately two hours and forty-three minutes, the film is way, way too long. Moreover, the spontaneous quality of the story results in a strikingly repetitive plot structure, which was also a hindrance apparent with Kerouac’s previously-discussed literary work. At times, there is so much ‘small talk’ that one feels as though one is watching a documentary rather than the riotous storytelling advertised in the trailer. Lastly and most frustrating of all, even after the movie’s painfully long run-time, the ending is far from satisfying. The audience is abandoned right in the middle of the road trip when major character relationships are at their most interesting. Furthermore, so many questions are left unanswered regarding the life that the protagonist left behind for her new adventure. Questions that she appears only once to attempt to address, before becoming so consumed with the journey ahead that she seems content to leave those great voids open for debate. The ultimate consequences of all of these issues are a journey that feels aimless and a story that ostensibly feels pointless, although perhaps such an ending was deliberate on Arnold’s part to illustrate that point exactly. Either way, American Honey ultimately remains worth a watch.
Whether one has been on the road trip across America or not, the principle ensemble cast are all so believable in their respective youthful roles that there will be at least one moment in the film for every member of the audience who has spent their younger years attempting to escape reality through a party of sorts, which, while rewarding him or her with a handful of happy memories, often amounts to an experience marred by bitter disappointment caused by ceaseless human realities. Every night out that was intended to be the ultimate celebration with one’s best friends but ended up being scarred by jealousy, boredom and excess might spring to mind. All of the house parties that began as peaceful exclusive gatherings of one’s immediate social circles but quickly turned into riotous spectacles because the world and its numerous relations showed up as well will bang on memory’s door. The temptation will be to insist that the ensemble of American Honey deserve no sympathy in the wake of their troubles and to assert that they, quite frankly, need to take responsibility for their lives. In the end, however, even the more bitter audiences will concede that they have all been where these characters presently stand, even if just for a few terrifying but equally exciting moments, desperately trying to make the most of their own fractured versions of the American Dream. Kerouac, Fitzgerald and every other dreamer that has followed them to this day would rightly be proud of the occasionally sticky but lusciously sweet movie that is American Honey.
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