Rites Of Passengers
Even though it’s a technique that the extremely talented writer, director Andrea Arnold has used before in some of her previous works, the uncommon screen ratio 4:3 seems incredibly apt for her latest cinematic insight into humanity ‘American Honey’ (2016). This time she has gone Stateside, and given there’s a few generations there who have been fundamentally reared solely on popular culture, the aspect ratio echoes the shape of tv sets, of which for millions was potentially their only education. It certainly was in regards the consumption of the so called American Dream, hustling for a dollar to buy the commodity dreams that they’ve only seen on screens or hear about through the speakers of the music to their lives.
It’s also beautifully apt that the main focus of the film Star (Sasha Lane) wasn’t an actress prior to this adventure having been spotted hanging out on a beach with friends. Her very participation has actually kick started her real life journey, like her character into the dream itself, as from her performance here, a true star is born.
Star is a young teenager in Southern Texas, down on her luck, dumpster diving with her very young siblings who she has been forced to look after as all the adults are off getting wasted, regardless of the time of day. There seems to be no options, money nor future ahead until a knight with shinning iPhone rides into town on his white van in the form of Jake (Shia LaBeouf). After what can only be called a mating dance lead by the Artful Dodger that is Jake atop a supermarket checking counter to the sound of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, Star becomes enthralled and hypnotised by stories of adventures in distant Emerald Cities which is being offered to her now. It’s not so much follow the Yellow Brick Road, just follow the endless roads.
Star tentatively begins to trust her developing, emerging young instincts, despite her surroundings and upbringing of squalor, she shines like a silver dollar amongst the trash.
She signs on to become part of a ‘mag crew’, a nomadic team of young workers who endlessly traverse the infinite southern highways to various Dream Lands selling magazine subscriptions. The team are wrangled by the seemingly carefree Jake, but they all work for very beautifully harsh capitalist witch in rebel bikini Krystal (Riley Keough) who rules with a brutal efficiency and the constant motivation of encouraging mutual beatings within the team for failure, or threat of banishment.
Getting Star up to speed with all the tricks of the trade Jake takes her under his wing, and his spell. With no real frame of reference of life experiences the road trip becomes a swift initiation into adulthood in all it’s pro’s and cons. Realising that a greater percentage of what they are doing is effectively coercing folk into buying their product by any means necessary (Krystal gives a break down of the demographics of any area they enter, and how to manipulate people for success) it jars heavily with Star’s moral code.
Fuelled by hundreds of miles, drugs, alcohol, sex, parties and a heady soundtrack of ‘trap music’, which are the teams anthems, their war cries of dreams, motivations, hopes, aspirations, failures, consumerism, unity, identity and a hell of a lot of base sexual references, that is effectively their misguide mantra for success, but also their enslavement. It’s not their fault though, their youth, naïvety, lack of experience and their misplaced trust of elders makes them easy to exploit, but at least they are being exploited together.
Even though Star has been drawn into this fold and the loins of Jake, it’s when she wanders away from the team that she blossoms the most. Various side adventures happen as she grows more confident by each sunset, taking bigger leaps, bigger dangers, awakening, realisations and growth in self belief where she doesn’t have to lie to people. You don’t have to exploit your way to success, sincerity and tenderness can come even in the most darkest of moments, sometimes literally. And it’s this sincerity that is strikingly missing from the modern landscape.
As the adventure progresses, so too the soundtrack. The bond of downtrodden call/response of dark, violent trap rap reality porn evolves into the working class dreams such as the title track ‘American Honey’ by Lady Antebellum which in one of many beautiful moments in the movie, despite the current situation and monotony of the graft, the team sing and shine, unified in their shared love, friendship and dreams.
As much as the road is the apparent map to their success, the soundtrack is the map to their soul, becoming the integral mixtape to their coming of age, as the memories are forever embedded in the jukebox of who they are about to become, the tracklist of the ritual dance and euphoria of growth.
It’s a long movie (2h 43mins) but bizarrely doesn’t seem that long. It never gets boring as you drift off into a really beautiful looking adventure, their dreams enraptured by the gorgeous cinematography that has the sheen of wonderment, innocence and aspiration. It probably could be cut down some, but as each city or town becomes another key stepping stone in the emerging beautiful young adult that is Star (and Sasha), their journey becomes your journey.
Despite the team towing a trailer brimming with fantasies, there is a great deal of harsh reality about too, and the glows are wonderfully balanced with other darker moments that are marinaded in reportage, which no doubt would have originated in Arnold’s extensive research into the real life equivalent of her subjects.
The central characters are truly outstanding. As mentioned Sasha is fantastic, radiating any moment she’s on screen (enhanced by the ‘portrait’ intimate ratio of 4:3), and there are moments when she’s with Shia (also brilliant) that it feels like you are watching a real life relationship, acting is the furthest thought from your mind, there is such genuine chemistry between them both. Equally so Riley who stares down at you from the screen with such ruthlessness, you just want to cower. The supporting cast all step up to the plate too in a wide range of all walks of modern American life.
There are no doubts similarities to Larry Clark’s excellent dip into the harsh realities of youth in his ‘Kids’ (1995), but with a contemporary lense and more epic journey. If anything this is a great thing and it would be a lovely evolution if yet another director were to pick up the mantle in years to come to record the current state of adolescence and the waters they travel through in their baptism to adulthood.
‘American Honey’ and it’s accompanying soundtrack are out now.