Without abandoning her favoured 4:3 aspect ratio, Andrea Arnold has expanded her horizons with each new project. She navigated increasingly fraught urban scenarios in her short Wasp and features Red Road and Fish Tank; she ran wild on the Moors with 2011’s radical rethink of Wuthering Heights. Her next step takes her closer to Hollywood than one might have imagined of a filmmaker whose instincts are realist. American Honey is preceded by the Universal logo, and plays out entirely on US soil, where things are bigger, louder and brighter; perhaps it’s unsurprising Arnold should have lost her bearings a little.
That Arnold seeks to open up a new angle on America is evident just from her opening scene, of a young woman in a supermarket dumpster, retrieving a frozen chicken. The girl is Star (Sasha Lane), and immediately we can tell she is as much of the fringes as Arnold’s previous heroines. Something is stirred within her, however, when she spies a minibus full of tanned, boisterous contemporaries pulling into the carpark: here is both a ready-made gang and a family more appealing than her own grim domestic set-up. Even in this most fiercely individualistic of nations, the need to belong is strong.
No matter that they number Shia LaBeouf with ear studs and ponytail, she runs away with this merry band of outlaws – not circus folk, for all their off-duty rough-and-tumble; rather, they form a fly-by-night, seat-of-the-pants operation flogging magazine subscriptions. It’s a weird way into the wider country, and Arnold seems at least semi-aware of the irony her protagonists should be channelling their abundant energies into rustling up interest for what circulation figures would suggest is a dying medium – but she also wants us to share these kids’ wide-eyed wonder as they reach some new point on the map.
Thanks to her resident cinematography genius Robbie Ryan, these sights are no less impressive for being viewed in 4:3 through a grimy minibus window; though square and cramped, every frame hums with life of some kind. The menagerie Arnold rounded up in Wasp and Fish Tank is here expanded to include flying squirrels, brown bears, even the worm at the bottom of a mescal bottle. (One reason she may have shipped out: it gives her whole new species to classify.)
Her ability to find poetry in poverty is also much in evidence – and, unlike in other Universal releases, that poverty is certainly apparent. LaBeouf’s Jake, variously compared to a gangster and Donald Trump, possibly exerts the hold he does because he’s the first man Star’s ever met who owns a suit jacket. Still, even in this moderate-to-small form, business can be a cruel place: bubblegum-snapping overseer Krystal (Riley Keough, coolly terrific) obliges her lowest-selling salespeople to wrestle for the others’ amusement.
The flaw with American Honey is how all this life has been shaped. At an unwieldy 163 minutes, the film has the feel of a rough cut, and while part of me was impressed that an outsider had been allowed to turn in something this uncompromising, my shifting buttocks noted four or five too many scenes of the gang hanging in car parks listening to aggressive rap music, and three or four more of them razzing one another in the minibus while listening to aggressive rap music. (I suspect many viewers will want less mixtape, more movie.)
Fish Tank snapped into thriller mode late on; Wuthering Heights had Bronte’s eternal passions as a throughline. All American Honey has to sustain it is Star, Jake and Krystal’s playground love triangle, unless you’re particularly compelled by the particulars of hawking magazine subscriptions. Even here, I didn’t buy that people would so graciously welcome these urchins into their homes to discuss the finer print, and I don’t believe that, in the 21st century, even a tearaway like Star would jump into so many strangers’ cars and trucks with such carefree abandon.
There’s a small miracle here, and it’s that a model of filmmaking arrived at on the sink estates of Glasgow and Essex should have been transplanted West, and taken root so. Yet American Honey struck this viewer as Arnold’s least impactful film to date, losing its moments of wonder and rapture amid an unvaryingly dreamy haze. As it drifts into its third hour, the film amply demonstrates Arnold’s near-unparalleled ability to get down and stay down with the kids. Those of us whose afternoons don’t, perhaps, stretch into infinity might just prefer her to get on with it, that’s all.
American Honey is now available on DVD through Universal Pictures.