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.