Andrea Arnold's AMERICAN HONEY Brillant!
Andrea Arnold, British, is a rising star film director. AMERICAN HONEY is her fourth feature and her second that won the Jury Award at Cannes, this one in 2016. As a filmmaker myself, who has lived rurally now for over four decades, I try to keep my antenna out for what's new, vibrant, hot, might lead to change in cinema for women, and that often times, I never get to see. Arnold is definitely hot. In 2016, I watched her and her cast give their press conference in Cannes after their award was announced.
AMERICAN HONEY Cast Press Conference at Cannes, 2016
What immediately attracted me to her work was that almost all of her cast was non actors. In working with an ensembled cast the interaction and actual words of the characters drive the story rather a firmly prescribed script. This is my kind of filmmaking. My own films SWEET BANANAS (30m, 1973) and SURVIVA (32m, 1980), both basically fictional or what Marian Hunter dubbed at the time “fanumentary”, rely on this kind of intermix of the characters. My Women Make Movies co-founding partner, Sheila Paige's WOMEN HAPPY TIME COMMUNE (47m, 1972) is the best early feminist film example of this style of cinema that drew out from the influence that Warhol's films had on our vision of moviemaking mixed with the roar of the women's liberation movement and our youth film teaching experiences. As LA Times reviewer Justin Chang describes it, “[Arnold] leaves conventional ideas of narrative structure almost completely by the wayside, relying on pure texture, sensuality, imagery, music and performance to drive her picture forward.”
The central character, Star, played by newcomer Sasha Lane was found by Arnold as she scoured music events and beach gatherings of the young seeking possible 'actors' for her movie. Fed up with her depressing family home-life, Star attaches herself to a band of traveling young magazine subscription salespeople. Packed in a van they travel town-to-town through the mid-west often times wrecking havoc along the way. Star falls for the best magazine salesperson, Jake (Shia LaBeouf). But the sex is short lived as Jake plays with her inexperience – both in magazine sales and in relationships.
I had no idea the film was 2 hours and 43 minutes when I scheduled it. I need not have worried. Every eye in my small audience was glued to every frame of the gorgeously shot film. Andrea Arnold has worked with the cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, before. They make a superb team. His camera keeps a close frame around Star, while simultaneously capturing prairie sunsets and a profusion of moths and other insects that gravitate around Star. Gently hugged by the camera's frame, even protected, Star's bruised relationship fades as her dreamy, hopeful gaze shines, “as she settles into her independence and figures out who she wants to be, framed by a vast physical landscape that stretches socioeconomically from privileged wealth to squalid poverty,” writes David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter. Ronney goes on to say, “There's a wonderful intimacy in the way Arnold examines young women in her films.” Yes, there is. The interior shots from inside the van where most of the ensemble gathers on numerous occasions are stellar. The rich cacophony of tight shots show Star as she gets to know her fellow sales people, the motley crew of young misfits. Simultaneously through Star's eyes we see play, drama, evolving relationships, introspection and wanderlust as she gazes out the window to the outside world as it whizzes by.
Despite the film's length the story is really soft, subtle, richly woven, leaving you lingering as to what actually really happened, yet satisfied. At several moments I wondered if Star might leave the traveling group. But in the end we see her self-assured and confident in her own abilities to make friends, and sales, as she once again climbs back into the van with her fellow passengers in this rough and tumble flow of life.
For a long time I have envisioned a mini women's film festival highlighting some of the best (the best?) women's fiction films of the decade. My mini festival would be WOMEN'S HAPPY TIME COMMUNE, representing the 1970s, BORN IN FLAMES for the 80s and DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST of the 90s. I would definitely add AMERICAN HONEY to represent the current decade. Now maybe through the initiative Crucial 21st Century Cinema #DirectedByWomen and the bevy of bloggers I can find the stellar work of the last decade. I am sure you readers will make me recommendations.