American Honey

Director: Andrea Arnold (2016) BBFC cert: 15

No one in cinema captures the grim essence of poverty with the clear eyed compassion of Brit director Andrea Arnold. Now she’s taken her unique talent across the pond for this extraordinary road trip through the heartlands of the USA.

When Ridley Scott made Thelma and Louise (1991) he embraced road trip convention by choosing a widescreen format. The master stylist painted beautiful landscapes on which to place his characters, though his glorious images were at odds with the desperate plight of the women.

Arnold’s decision to film in a boxlike aspect ratio creates a cage to reflect the limited life of her characters. Plus it allows the face of her lead to frequently fill the frame and these portraits create intimacy and empathy.

Always a challenging and uncomfortable ride, we’re made to experience the forlorn apathy, hopeless hedonism and rootless grind of the lives of a crew of travelling magazine salespeople.

It’s an episodic tale with undertones of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. An 18 year old named Star escapes her chaotic and abusive life. She sprints away to be recruited by a cocky and flamboyantly dressed team leader who is himself under the thumb of a snarling gangmaster.

Arnold points to the hypocrisy of avowed Christians, the tremendous disparity of wealth distribution and the casual drift in and out of criminality. She’s very concerned with the vulnerability of her characters who are physically and emotionally damaged. Their dreams for life are desperately small and pitifully beyond their means.

Star’s interactions with insects, dogs, turtles and a bear are all witness to her development. By turns selfish, courageous, impulsive, sexy, damaged and guilt ridden, she is the most real person you will meet in cinema this year. It is a breathtaking debut by Sasha Lane.

Shia LaBeouf plays Jake with the devil may care of the Artful Dodger, giving a performance to suggest he’s the great actor he’s always told us he is. As their combative boss, Krystal, the smouldering attitude of Riley Keough burns an after-image on the screen every time she appears.

A triumph for all involved.




Heaven Knows What

Director: Ben & Joshua Safdie (2016)

This raw tale of homeless heroin addicts refuses to offer easy solutions or heavy handed homilies.

It’s a loosely plotted account of dependancy, desperation and destitution, told with a blessed lack of sentiment or backstory. Events are given an immediacy through cold location work, shot guerrilla-style with handheld cameras.

New York is presented as an overcrowded, dirty, concrete conurbation where the state uses medicine to control the population. The internet exists but technology intermittently fails.

Adding an astonishing synth soundtrack to the opening scenes of dystopia and isolation, it feels like a 1970s sci-fi prophesy of the 21st century. And it’s set in the present day.

Framing the drama in this way affords us a degree of separation from events, necessary for us to endure watching them.

Based on her own memoir of life on New York streets, Arielle Holmes is compellingly aggressive and agitated performance as Harley.

She rebounds between sadistic addict Ilya and drug dealer Mike, leading to a running battle between the abusive pair. Caleb Landry Jones and Buddy Duress are grubbily convincing.

Littered among the mental illness, overdoses, shoplifting, fighting and begging are small random acts of kindness. They fuel a shambling camaraderie among the down and very nearly outs.

What seems to be dangerous, threatening and unhinged behaviour to bystanders, we recognise as being an understandable reaction to Harley’s extreme circumstance and limited options.

Heaven knows how she survived, not all her acquaintances are so fortunate.