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If there was one film from 2016 that I knew had to make it into my #52FilmsByWomen pledge it was English director Andrea Arnold’s America Honey. The film premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival where it one the prestigious Prix de Jury, the third most coveted award given out by the Festival jury.

American Honey follows Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage girl with a terrible home life who is recruited into a crew of traveling magazine salespeople, many of whom lived lives similar to hers. With the promise of a job and a life of her own, Star leaves her foster family in order to pursue herself. The film is a whirlwind trip across the United States as Star discovers more about life and love than she ever would have back home.

In her first on screen role, Lane brings the character of Star to life. Star is what I can only describe as a true bohemian, willing to give up everything she has ever known for the prospect of happiness and the feeling of home. When she is approached by Jake (Shia LaBeouf) the crew’s business manager, and offered a job, her only qualm is the safety of her two foster siblings. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, American Honey is almost an epic about contemporary American life, zeroing on those families and individuals who have truly been affected by the financial collapse of recent years. The film as a whole is a very intimate, and possibly the most honest, look into the truth of modern US society, in recent cinematographic history, showing the dependency on money, drugs and concept of freedom many Americans hold.

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The film is beautifully shot, with some of the most wonderful cinematography I have seen recently. Robbie Ryan, the film’s director of photography who is known for his frequent collaboration with both Arnold and fellow British filmmaker Ken Loach, creates a beautiful almost surreal backdrop for the character’s sales and relationships. The film holds a meaningful and moving sort of magical realism because of Ryan’s cinematography, including one of cinema’s most beautiful final scenes. This sense of magic is further cemented by the film’s soundtrack: a beautiful mix of rap, country and mellow indie-pop, that perfectly accompanies the characters Arnold created.

The film’s downfall I believe is Arnold’s dedication to particular relationships over others. The film seems to be set up to explore Star’s budding yet complicated romance with Jake. The two manage to have an on-again off-again relationship over the few weeks the film covers filled with passionate connection and equally passionate arguments. My fear for the film is this relationship, so central to the film while still not being incredibly vital to the narrative. In essence, LaBeouf’s Jake is emotionally manipulative and selfish in his relationships, both with Star and the crew’s leader Krystal (Riley Keough). He’s described by the crew as being ‘whipped’ by Krystal, dedicating his time on the road to making sure she’s happy. A sexual relationship is hinted at between the two of them, Star becoming increasingly jealous of their romance as Jake continues to deny his feelings for her in public, blaming it on Krystal’s rules against crew member relationship. Star’s behaviour throughout the film highlights her need for acceptance and love, particularly at the beginning of the film when she is groped by her foster father, a single tear slipping down her cheek. She seems to turn to Jake in search of the love that’s always been missing from her life only to not receive it. LaBeouf’s performance, although excellent, subdues any trace of his manipulation of Star, normalising the abusive nature of their relationship immediately. I felt bad for Star, turning to various outlets of affection to feel loved including a brief stint of prostitution. Whether it was a symptom of Arnold’s screenplay or of LaBeouf’s character choices, I found myself truly feeling for Star and hoping she realised she is enough without the need for romantic validation.

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What truly made this constrained romance even more troublesome for me is the film’s running time and the dismissal of the other characters within the crew. Arnold managed to create beautifully complex characters, cast magnificently, who sadly disappeared into the shadow of Star and Jake’s romance. I would have loved to see Star’s relationship with the other young men and women who were following a similar path to her. The interactions would have no doubt been honest and eye-opening both to Star and the audience, allowing an even more intimate glimpse into the nomadic lives of the American youth at the heart of the film. Particularly interesting, and ignored in my opinion, was the relationship between Krystal and Star. Upon her introduction, Krystal immediately compares herself to Star. Arnold here introduces Krystal as a foil to the free-spirited Star, a hardened version of the same battered and manipulated young woman. The two girls’ battling romances with Jake however drives a wedge between them, pitting the two young women against each other and eclipsing their own relationship. Keough’s performance is fantastic; managing to truly grasp and flesh out a character in her few instances on screen. Exploring Star’s relationship with Krystal, a woman so similar yet vastly different to her, would have been a very interesting sub-plot for the film, particularly due to its running time.

Despite my issues with the film’s treatment of relationships and Star’s personal development, it was an exceptionally beautiful film. Lane’s performance was truly remarkable for a first time screen actress and I look forward to seeing more of her in upcoming films. Keough and LaBeouf also brought great performances, cementing their status as talented actors dedicated to broadening the independent canon to include deep character performances.

American Honey is definitely a film I would like to revisit for a second viewing, observing whether my thoughts change about its narrative over time.