Like Andrea Arnold’s previous film, the excellent Fish Tank, American Honey centres on the life of a poor, white girl. Her depictions are electrified by authenticity, there is no attempt to create the noble poor, nor to make them victims. Their lives may be grim, but the characters in her films carry vitality and humour with them, because this is the world they inhabit, and will always inhabit, with its cheap thrills and bawdy comedy. In Honey Arnold transposes her depiction of people living on the outskirts of society to the US, with a group of young hustlers travelling from town to town, selling magazine subscriptions. It’s the sort of transient, meaningless task that young, and uneducated are forced into, given the decline in the traditional working class jobs. But her characters are never allowed to indulge in self pity.
Truffaut famously declared British cinema a contradiction in terms, as he felt that Britain was essentially an uncinematic country – too ugly, too brutal, too prosaic. But, like Shane Meadows, Arnold has found a way to render these elements in a cinematic language without suffocating it in style, the way Paul Thomas Anderson does. It may be in America now, but it is this same approach that Arnold adopts in Honey – the camera pulls in tight to the characters, focuses on the everyday and riffs around trivial dialogue.
The price for this authenticity is that it eschews much by the way of narrative. We follow Sasha Lane’s Star as she leaves the confines of her life to team up with the magazine sellers, her possible romance with the charismatic Jake (Shia LeBeouf continuing his career resurrection) and conflicts with the team’s boss, the hard nosed Krystal. The audience only really need 90 minutes of this to get the full measure, and at just under three hours, there’s no real justification for the extra length. Over long films are the bane of modern cinema, get in, tell your story, get out. If you’re expecting me to sit around for anything over two hours, you’d better be David Lean or Coppola, and even then, I’m pretty sure you could cut a couple of scenes.
Kenneth Lonergan’s slice of downbeat small town East coast life commences with us following Casey Affleck’s social awkward Lee Chandler. He misjudges interactions with others, fails to make small talk, and when he does react, it is with violence. Like Camus’s L’Etranger he missteps and is unable to make the appropriate social response. Like much else in the movie it doesn’t overplay this portrayal of dissolution to a caricature of a misanthrope. But this is contrasted with Chandler episodes interacting with his wife, children and nephew Patrick, where he is charming and relaxed.
Through this episodic process the cause of Chandler’s transformation from easy going regular guy to aggressive loner is revealed. Simultaneously the demise of Chandler’s brother through heart disease unfolds. This leaves Lee as the guardian of the 16 year old Patrick, but in order to do so he is required to move back to Manchester from Boston. Back to the scene of his tragedy. Patrick sets out his desire to stay in Manchester: “I’m on the hockey team, I have two girlfriends…” whereas Lee has no hooks. This is the essence of the film – what is it in our environment that gives it meaning.
This is no About a Boy, there is no simple redemption and return to normal life for Lee through the unexpected responsibility of looking after his nephew. Several of the usual tropes are teasingly brought in – a possible love interest with the mother of Patrick’s girlfriend, a bonding project over the renovation of a boat, a reconciliation with his ex wife. It is as if Lonergan is taunting us – you think you know exactly how this will unfold from here, but it won’t, because real life isn’t like that.
Ultimately it’s a superior piece of afternoon film melodrama. Lee is like a less hopeful character from an Anne Tyler novel. There is no uplifting ending, just muted, awkward and painful reality.
PS – I’d happily live in Manchester by the sea: hockey, picturesque houses, sea.
This film cropped up on a lot of my friends favourites from 2016, so I belatedly got around to watching it. I get why they liked it, but I loathed it. It’s one of those movies. Plot wise it centres on hopeless castaway Paul Dano discovering the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe. The corpse becomes a tool and a friend as Dano begins his journey back to civilisation. It’s a one gag movie – Harry Potter is dead, but look, he’s got an erection!
I was reminded of my one attempt to write surreal comedy when I was about 14. I think it featured a scene where someone in a jungle comes across a walking dishwasher that shows Coronation Street. I thought it was so off the wall it would wow everyone with my zany connections. I showed it to my elder brother. He read it quickly, didn’t laugh, and passed it back to me with a deadpan expression. “It’s trying too hard,” was his damning, succinct and correct verdict. Watching Dano surf on the permanently flatulent corpse of Radcliffe I became my older brother. Really trying too hard. Some of my friends found meaning and emotion in the redemptive journey, but I’d long lost patience with it by then.
Let’s address the Mel thing straight away – I don’t care that another indulged white man went off the rails and is now seeking redemption. His struggle with his demons is just another means of validating his original offences. But there is an argument that all art deserves to be judged independently of its creator. This stance is not as straightforward as it seems – it depends on the nature of the crime, the value of the art and the individual viewer. For instance, the crimes of Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins are so disturbing that I would imagine it is impossible to listen to their work now (I never did in the first place). But I can watch Chinatown and divorce that from Roman Polanski being a creep, but I would understand if others couldn’t.
So with Gibson the value is with whether the combination of his history and our reaction to it, helps make his work more interesting. There was a sign of this with last year’s Blood Father which played with Gibson’s alcoholic and racist past to establish a bit more depth to the redemption thriller. With Hacksaw Ridge it is less to the fore, but in this tale of the conscientious objector who saves 75 US marines on one night, there are key themes that riff on this combination. A confrontation with the consequences of his violent upbringing, combined with strong religious conviction leads Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss to take his principled stance. The build up and violent, realistic war scenes will be familiar enough to viewers of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It’s hard not to be moved by Doss’s persistence and the finale is suitably moving and ennobling.
But the real interest in the film is pitching this non-violence, alternative take on heroism into the current US political climate. If we think the reaction against Doss’s stance lacks understanding in the 40s, then it would be vitriolic from Trump supporters. If the message we can take from Hacksaw Ridge is that sticking to core values will be recognised in the end, then from education to law, that will resonate with those suffering under the current administration. This is made more intriguing by Gibson being the bearer of the message. And apart from all that, it’s a cracking war film.