Though American Honey took home the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, our Cannes correspondent Elena Lazic found it cliched and problematic — a disappointment from the very talented Arnold.
From its opening sequence, something feels uncharacteristically off about Andrea Arnold’s new film American Honey. It opens with a sequence showing three young people searching for food in a dumpster. From then on, Arnold’s close-ups consistently objectify the film’s attractive, lower-class protagonist Star (Sasha Lane), seemingly embracing the disturbing but all-too-common idea that a certain raw, primeval beauty can be found in poverty.
This cliché is all the more disconcerting coming from Arnold, whose earlier film Fish Tank (2009) demonstrated profound humanism and respect for her lower-class characters. But in American Honey, Arnold refuses to allow her characters’ personalities and emotions to carry the film. Instead, she falls back on a simplistic, unoriginal, and tiresome approach: the film continuously objectifies the characters, striving to make them interesting and appealing only on a superficial, visual, and kinetic level.
Arnold’s best work by far, Fish Tank, also unambiguously objectified its main character Mia. But crucially, Mia always actively participated in that process. Part of the film’s success was in its careful handling of a delicate topic — a young girl’s discovery of her sexuality and her own attractiveness — while directly addressing the implications of self-objectification and self-othering.
Mia’s passion for dance, at first an exclusively solitary and physical activity, evolved into a spectacle as she gradually explored its visual appeal and that of her young body. The lingering camera during the sequences of dance and seduction brilliantly expressed Mia’s feelings of self-othering from her own body; she was trying to imagine how someone else might perceive her. This objectifying camera was always on her side, operating like her and for her.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of American Honey. The camera’s intent seems to be a rather misguided attempt to validate an idealised, picture-postcard — or instagrammed — vision of youth. When teenage Star abandons her family to join a gang of young, friendly strangers, it’s as much to follow flirtatious magazine salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf, baffling as ever), as to escape her precarious social and economic situation.
The short selection of cliched sequences picked to illustrate the poverty-stricken world Star comes from look like an outsider’s construction drawn from photographs, ideas, and anecdotes rather than from lived experience. Similarly, when Jake’s entourage introduce themselves, mentioning their hometowns, it anchors the film on an abstract map more than it makes these people or places feel real. It’s pure Americana: Arnold’s characters feel like actors playing dress-up.
This flatness could be defended as reflecting Star’s own, subjective perspective, blinded by love and desire. But if so, her motivations still appear very thin. Star is a girl with a short attention span, who seems to forget and forgive easily, and whose love interest is a question mark. Shia LaBeouf’s enigmatic Jake does not elicit any sense of uncontrollable attraction the way Fassbender did so powerfully as Conor in Fish Tank. Conor’s absence was just as palpable as his intoxicating presence in the tiny rooms of Mia’s flat was felt. In contrast, Jake is a maddening enigma without any real depth.
The problem here is that Arnold seems to justify the carelessness and emptiness of Star and her friends as being the result of some sort of feral, primal attitude they have. Arnold decides, without any real justification, to situate this state and attitude in Americanness itself. Despite spending two hours of screen time striving to get Jake to treat her right, Star ultimately decides to ignore his hurtful behaviour in order to embrace the group spirit: she joins in with everyone dancing around a fire. Using the titular song, “American Honey”, in those closing moments feels like a forced, clunky effort from an English director to artificially attribute this attitude — favouring the group over the individual — to American culture.
But Arnold’s celebration of the supposedly uniquely American “free spirit” results in a condescending attitude toward her characters. American Honey chooses to focus almost exclusively on surface-level aesthetics instead of interiority, as though Arnold is uncertain whether her characters’ interior lives will even appeal to the audience. The camera strives desperately to sustain the viewer’s interest by filming every part of these “primal” bodies, as if Star and her friends were unknowable animals rather than people. This approach is insulting to the characters’ intelligence — and to the viewers’, as well.
American Honey persistently tries to conjure “movie magic” moments, which might work if they weren’t so predictable. In a contrived scene, Jake explains that he would sometimes howl like a wolf so his father could find him more easily — a depressingly obvious gesture at the cringe-worthy notion of Jake as a “lone wolf”. Such supposedly cute moments seem intended to trigger fondness for the teenage protagonists, who are portrayed as naive, empty, and undomesticated. But these hackneyed lines only added to my exasperation.