Thursday, December 22, 2016

[Review] American Honey

Youth. Rebellion. Crime. Lust. Dreams. In many respects, Andrea Arnold's brash, raw, and vibrant American Honey plays like a modern-day Easy Rider--but with teenagers and a lot more rap music.

Star (Sasha Lane) is an 18-year-old hoping to break free from her troubled home situation. On a whim, she joins a door-to-door magazine sales crew, led by a smooth-talker and possible psychopath named Jake (Shia Labeouf, sporting a ratty ponytail that someone should call Pest Control on). The pack of rowdy, scummy, and impoverished youngsters set out on a road trip of hustling and hardcore partying across the heart of the US. Newcomer Sasha Lane shines with her central performance as the group's conflicted moral compass who's still desperately in search for a new way of life.

American Honey is one of those rare films that manages to feel mesmerizingly surreal and vividly authentic at the same time. Beautifully lit and filmed under sunrise and sunset colors, the picture is presented in a squarish aspect ratio, rather than the usual widescreen views. But instead of conveying narrowness or confinement, the handheld camera captures an epic sense of intimacy, as well as a clear-eyed focus on slyly symbolic views of nature: A bee staying afloat in a swimming pool. A jumping spider zipping across a crayon drawing. A school of tadpoles on the verge of transforming. Then there's the scene of the squad cruising through a very wealthy neighborhood, ogling at MTV Cribs-style homes that don't even fit in the frame. It's depressing. It's hopeful. It's inherently plotless. It's contradictory and problematic--but in an observant it is what it is sort of way, similar to the gaze of 2014's Rich Hill documentary or a Viceland look at under-the-belly countercultures.

The film flaunts a vital diegetic soundtrack that becomes a star in its own right, whether it's enriching the themes, tapping into the zeitgeist, or sounding just plain wonderful. The anthemic splendor of Rihanna singing "We found love in a hopeless place" as Star and Jake first lock eyes in a K-Mart. The early morning motivation of Kevin Gates' "Out the Mud". E-40's boastful "Choices". The change of pace that comes with "Recharge & Revolt" by The Raveonettes as the Star rises out of a sunroof against the backdrop of city lights. The straight-up party jams of Rae Sremmurd and Migos.
There's even a Bruce Springsteen croon for good measure: "C'mon we gotta keep the fire burnin', c'mon dream baby dream."

* 9/10 *

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