A film director whose visionary work has, until now, been largely ignored by the mainstream cinema audience, has torpedoed in the spotlight with American Honey at a time where America is hungry for a different narrative. One that sidesteps the catastrophe of two political and economic giants slinging mud at each other in a penned-off arena. Andrea Arnolds’ American Honey was released in the U.S in May earlier this year (pre-‘Nasty Woman’) as if Arnold anticipated that audiences would be eager to devour a different American story.
It’s her first film set in the U.S and it’s kind of miraculous how inhabited the world of the film feels. Watching her picture is like stepping right into a world that has existed for an eternity and will continue to thrive once we leave the cinema. We are transitory visitors.
The film depicts a traveling magazine sales crew as they drive across the Midwest to seek enough cash to keep them journeying. Sasha Lane plays the protagonist Star, who Arnold scouted during Spring Break. The fact that Lane has never professionally acted before and is able to ignite the film with an awe-inspiring performance is a nod to great things to come and truly validates her ‘breakthrough’ acclaim.
Star finds herself in myriad moments where we suspect she will be taken advantage of. Arnold deposits her in precarious situations that feel familiar to watch: a lone young girl in the passenger seat of a stranger’s truck, or outnumbered in a cartoon red automobile with three white cowboys. That vulnerability surely equates to some sort of abuse, but Arnold doesn’t let it. She refuses to exploit her characters and instead acknowledges that their everyday situation is drama enough.
The narrative is cyclic, we feel the tedium and boredom of life on the road. With limited funds and a lack of future prospects, this band of nomads are on a hazy journey with no clear destination. The highest stakes are between Star and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) whose growing attraction for one another threatens their position in Krystal’s (Riley Keough) cohort.
What makes Arnold so brilliant is that she spent three months alongside her cast, living with them on the road and staying in motels featured in the film. She lived and breathed that world in a way that enabled her to depict it with accuracy. She also chooses to spotlight characters who are largely unseen by the public eye and celebrate them. Though some scenes are tonally bleak, we get the sense that Arnold truly fell in love with the people who collaborated on this project. Like her seminal film Fish Tank with its irresistible moment of Bobby Womack crooning California Dreaming on an idyllic road trip, American Honey features a scene with a nostalgic song blaring in a moment of freedom. Star climbs into a truck with a complete stranger and Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Dream Baby Dream leaks out of the stereo and blurs the scene with a consuming optimism. It’s not permanent, but for a while we are allowed to feel hope.
Another reason to celebrate Arnold is the fact that she’s a woman directing movies. In 86 years, only 4 women have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director. Of the 6,000 members of the Academy, there are 377 members of the directing branch, and only 36 of those are women. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have ever won a Best Director Oscar, that was 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Not a single woman has even been nominated since.
Dream Baby Dream.