American Honey

American Honey

Andrea Arnold has the most remarkable ability to extract lies from truth, to dabble in kitchen sink realism only as a pretext for her meaningless formal exercises. Fish Tank was clumsy and obvious but at least showed a potential for shedding bad impulses and building good, but American Honey is that film pushed into the grotesque. Arnold loves close-ups that testify only to her own eye for capturing images, never any deeper insight into either characters or themes. AH is stuffed with fleeting shots of insects—swarming over undisposed food, flailing ominously in a pool, the worm at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal—are thuddingly obvious metaphors for its youth, who are reasonably depicted as being trapped in a system where the only way to survive is to peddle wares that are obsolete, all for the benefit of an older exploiter who keeps most of the gains and pays back just enough to keep stringing her employees along.

Yet whatever empathy this might engender is undercut by the fact that Arnold introduces her characters via leering scans over their blemishes, their acne scars and gaunt skin and bad teeth. These are real people, and to be honest I wish we saw more people in movies who actually exist in the world outside coastal cities. But the way Arnold shoots them only calls attention to how unlike the professionals they are, how daring Arnold is to have cast them. That the film's basic themes of economic duress evaporate amid the endless close-ups and arty flourishes only further pulls focus on the repellent class tourism at the expense of simply letting her actors be their natural selves. It's a shame, as both the unconventional actors (including Heaven Knows What's Arielle Holmes, rendered astonishingly unbelievable by her character's stupid Star Wars quirk) and Shia Labeouf (thoroughly inhabiting a role that has no underlying substance to support his good work) are robbed by how self-serving Arnold's direction ultimately is.

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