Tag Archives: BFI London Film Festival

Film Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach

Most romantic films end with a marriage, but in reality, marriage is just the beginning of a more complex story. Usually months of planning and excitement go in to creating a memorable wedding day and all the couple’s energy is focused on the perfect venue, dress or cake. But when it’s finally over, the newly conjoined couple are left alone and the actual business of being marriage stretches before them, a series of hurdles which the unprepared could find insurmountable. How much trickier this would have been in the more innocent middle years of the last century when propriety barely allowed a couple to see each other unchaperoned before they said “I do.”

Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach set in 1962 is the uncomfortable story of the first few hours in Florence and Edward’s married life as they awkwardly attempt to consummate their union. Circling each other nervously in their worn seaside hotel room, the couple recall aspects of their earlier lives including the shaping influence of their family on their current attitudes and personalities, as well as the chance encounter that brought them happily together. These interspersed memories tell of a romantic love story between two people who seemed destined for one another and certain to be happy, but their physical inexperience hangs heavy between them which leads to recrimination and unexpected truths.

Adapting novels for the screen is never easy and McEwan’s stories are particularly problematic because so much of his writing involves characters’ internalized monologues which can be difficult to replicate on screen without the use of clunky narration or too much expositionary dialogue. Unlike his previous hit Atonement in which director Joe Wright created an emotive portrait of love and war, giving life to one of the author’s finer novels, McEwan has written the screenplay for On Chesil Beach himself, ensuring the protagonists and sentiments remain exactly as he originally wrote them. If not always spritely, it makes for a faithful and sensitive transfer to the screen.

Happily, the project is also a movie debut for director Dominic Cooke, who, fresh from his sensational production of Follies at the National Theatre – which was nothing short of a theatrical triumph, earning its own reprise next year as well as multiple awards. Cooke certainly knows a thing or two about commanding stories of uneven love and the emotive power of long-held infatuations. In fact, watching On Chesil Beach at the London Film Festival last year, the parallels with Follies were striking; both stories are about couples who enter into marriage to escape some aspect of their surroundings and undergo a painful process of self-discovery that pulls them to pieces. But, more importantly, the effect of that decision, made on one particular day, can last a lifetime.

What Cooke brings to the project is the ability to infer so much meaning from a series of tiny signals that illuminate the screen, most notably the frequent focus on hands and mirrors as characters are seen holding linking fingers in moments of distress and need, or squeezing a shoulder to comfort and reassure – we know from Brief Encounter that such a seemingly insignificant gesture can be loaded with meaning, as Alec’s hand on Laura’s shoulder painfully explicates their final ever moment together. Cooke, fully aware of the power of such gestures, uses these small movements again and again to both emphasise the repressed physicality between Florence and Edward, as well as the more straightened expectations of the period. And in turn, this bodily restraint between them only seems to heighten the shock of their attempts at sex.

Production designer Suzie Davies creates a stiff 1960s world in the Dorset hotel room in which the couple plan to spend their first night. It’s clearly a respectable place, not quite high-end but not cheap either which suitably reflects the relative wealth of the couple, fancying itself as a place that offers silver service in the rooms while employing a couple of jack-the-lad waiters who find it hilarious. It manages to be fussy yet stale at the same time and you wouldn’t be surprised to see antimacassars on the chairs in the day room, a place that seems stuck in the past at a time when the nation was on the brink of a youthful revolution that seems a world away from the physical and emotional confines of this young couple. It’s spacious yet is a place of suffocating restriction for Florence in particular.

Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive central performance conveys a weight of expectation on Florence Ponting that has followed her through a bluestocking childhood, and later in the crushing atmosphere of the hotel room, forces her to accept the role of willing wife while being anything but. Working across two-time periods, Ronan neatly treads the line between a warmly confident young woman, raised in a staid environment and certain of the violinist talent that will ensure the success of her quartet, while the flush of seemingly easy romance with Edward Mayhew offers her a freedom and emotional connection that will release her from her family.

But, when the film returns to the hotel room, Ronan also shows the degree to which their earlier relationship had been a chaste fantasy, and once faced with the requirement for physical intimacy, she becomes afraid. In the growing awkwardness between the couple, Ronan carefully depicts the evaporation of Florence’s confidence as fear, confusion and revulsion take their place. And while the film is quite democratic in its attempt to create sympathy for both sides, Ronan’s performance of a virginal young woman, very much of her time and lacking in experience, cast into the unknown is an affecting one.

As her new husband, Billy Howle is an equal mix of contradictions, and he, along with Director Cooke, work hard to prevent him seeming callous. To facilitate this Edward’s story focuses around the easy bohemianism of his family, a clear class divide with the Pontings who beneath a veer of politeness imply he is an unsuitable match for their daughter. Howle in the flashback sections is a charming and affectionate boyfriend who has earned an academic future beyond his expectations and sees the world in rather uncomplicated terms.

In addition, his close family deals elegantly with his mother’s condition, and the audience admires how eagerly Edward welcomes Florence into his more relaxed and supportive home. His love for her seems real, not just a physical abstention, and even in the hotel room, as an eager groom his desire to consummate the relationship is never brusque or progressed without her consent. In the aftermath of their evening Howle reveals Edward’s depth of feeling, particularly in recognition of their quite different perspective on the same events, as well as his stinging feelings of betrayal that make their ultimate moment on the beach crucial to the rest of his life.

On Chesil Beach has a wonderful supporting cast including Sam West and Emily Watson as Florence’s cold and snobbish parents exuding disapproval at every turn, and whose behaviour explains Florence’s own marital reticence. There have only ever been rules and silence in their home, without any attempt at physical affection or to equip Florence for the experiences to ahead. Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff are equally excellent as Edward’s loving parents, with Duff in particularly giving a small but powerful performance as a woman damaged by a collision with a train door, keeping her “episodes” just the right side of credible. And while they are a more successful family, Cooke suggests the Mayhews too have failed Edward, giving him a sense of romance but, despite the hardship of their lives, he’s guiless when confronted with people whose surface expression conceal their true emotions.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is one of the film’s highlights, and whether it be the stormy vision of the strange pebble beach that so fittingly reflects the turmoil of the newlywed’s relationship, or the sun-drenched nostalgia of countryside picnics and cricket matches during their courtship, Bobbit’s work reflects the emotional tenor of the scene. It is a very British film which comes with everything that tag implies including occasional cosiness and lots of repression. There is a deliberate artfulness to the way in which the film has been constructed, that departs from the book somewhat to create a purposeful impression on the audience which at times feels heavy-handed, as though manipulating the audience to change their response to the characters.

While its quietness may divide viewers, it is nonetheless refreshing to see a very different kind of love story depicted on screen, and one that questions the emotional honesty of couples and their preparedness for marriage. On Chesil Beach wonders how a single moment can change and affect the rest of your life, how a rash decision alters who and what you became, extinguishing something that can never be replaced.

On Chesil Beach opens in the UK on the 18th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Advertisements

Film Review: Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-sea

Grief is a difficult subject to tackle in films, and it can often become histrionic or mawkish. Yet it’s something that everyone experiences at some point, usually multiple times, and the ways in which people respond to the loss of a loved one is incredibly varied. Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea which had its European premiere at the London Film Festival considers the impact of a sudden death and how difficult it is for individuals to hide from their past.

Lee Chandler works as a handyman / caretaker in a residential block in the city. He fixes showers and replaces light bulbs, makes small talk with residents but lives a life of bleak isolation, an existence he seems to accept uncomplainingly. Out of the blue Lee’s brother, Joe, dies and Lee has to return to his hometown of Manchester – a cheerlessly bleak seaside town – to take care of Joe’s teenage son Patrick and settle his brother’s affairs. While here, he encounters his ex-wife Randi and the reason why Lee left Manchester begin to emerge.

Lonergan’s story is an unusually compassionate one, and offers a variety of more restrained perspectives on grief than often portrayed on screen. Rather than expansive emotional breakdown, we see a group of family and friends in small town America struggling to come to terms with a tragedy but having to maintain a front for each other, supressing their emotions in order to transact the various funereal and administrative procedures that necessarily accompany death. And while that may all sound rather bland, Lonergan adds depth with the slowly unfolding story of Lee’s life and an even earlier tragedy that set him on his current path.

Lonergan approaches the story in three distinct sections; we see Lee’s life in Boston at the beginning, the man he has become and the colourless existence he accepts; we also see his return to Manchester in the present day and the reluctant but growing not-quite-but-almost fatherly relationship Lee develops with Patrick after Joe appoints him guardian; and finally all of this is interspersed with memories of Lee’s earlier life in Manchester as a happy married man with two children. Much of the tension and emotional resonance comes from knowing that somehow, somewhere Lee’s life changed irrevocably, losing everything he had, becoming a shadow of the man he was both emotionally and in terms of his social interaction.

Much of the success of the film lays in Casey Affleck’s taut and matter-of-fact performance that effectively shows Lee as a man who has withdrawn from life, defeated by bad luck and bad judgement. But actually this is a film about relationships and it starts by reflecting on the happy, supportive interaction between two siblings as we see Lee and Joe fishing with Patrick on the surrounding sea, drinking together in a group of friends at Lee’s house and eventually Joe helping Lee when he moves to the city. This warm brotherly affection is a brutal contrast with Lee’s withdrawn and isolated state at the start of the film.

Golden Globe winner Affleck is particularly effective at displaying the contained grief that follows, no histrionics or lengthy shots of him gazing longingly into the middle distance, but instead we see a man just quietly and conscientiously accepting the latest in a long-line of blows life has aimed at him. There are practical matters to attend to – arranging the funeral, buying food for his nephew, meeting with lawyers – which Lee just gets on with. There’s no time for breakdowns or recriminations, and while he is certain he is in no state to support his nephew long term (despite his brother’s will), he just gets on with the domestic tasks ahead of him. Affleck’s performance is already attracting attention and is sure to appear on the Oscar list later in the year.

Likewise Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife Randi seen briefly in the modern and flashback sections of the film. She’s not on screen for very long but her short appearances are significant and powerfully portrayed. Williams has long been a favourite with awards panels, and here she, like Affleck, has a dual role to play as the once largely contented mother, frustrated by her husband’s thoughtlessness when he has boozy nights with his friends, but in a stable happy home.  Again in the modern sections we see the results of a tragedy that separated, as Williams brings an affection for her former husband marred by a slightly embarrassment at the obvious presence of her new life. It’s a pivotal role, demonstrating how people who were once so close have become permanently divided, and set on different paths, without any lasting ill-feeling between them.

Lee’s relationship with his nephew is also central to the film, and from the flashbacks we see that they’ve long had a close connection. After a lengthy absence, returning home at the start, the now teenage Patrick is a little more awkward than the sweet child Lee used to fish with, and although they make some progress in re-establishing a closer bond it’s a continual trial for both of them which forms much of the drama in the central section of Manchester by the Sea.

It’s initially quite hard to grasp that Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t as affected by the death of his father as you would expect and wants to spend time with his girlfriend, see his friends and avoid awkward conversations – fairly typical teenage behaviour – but Patrick’s detachment is more surprising and less explicable than Lee’s seeing as the boy had a seemingly good relationship with his dad, who cared for him when his mum walked out. Additional nuance is added by a burgeoning relationship with his now reformed alcoholic mother who tries to reach out and integrate her son into her new family which leads to some incredibly awkward dinners that feel real and familiar.

As well as the controlled performances from the leads, Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography is suitably bleak, capturing beautiful but almost colourless images of the cold Manchester seascape, which reflect the emotional desolation of the film. Lonergan takes his time with the plot, allowing events to unfold slowly and building a sense of the community. Despite its critical praise and award-hopes, it will be a divisive movie for some, largely because grief is so often portrayed hysterically that it may be difficult for audiences to warm to Lee’s restraint and root for him when he deliberately shuts out the world, and our sympathies.  And while we uncover Lee’s secret this is not a film that sets any of its characters on new paths, leaving them almost entirely where we met them – again something viewers will either love or find impossibly slow. Either way, you’ll be hearing a lot about this film in the weeks ahead and with Oscar and Bafta nominations round the corner, Lonergan’s subtle story is sure to feature.

Manchester by the Sea was premiered at the London Film Festival in October and opens in UK cinemas on 13th January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Film Review: Arrival

Arrival

Many of the biggest blockbusters of recent years have been about life beyond the stars and since the first space expeditions of the mid-twentieth century popular culture has continually celebrated ideas of space travel, whether larking through time and space with Dr Who or fighting the forces of good and evil in Star Wars. Yet while we may think that these are all about our desire to encounter alien life, space films are actually all about humanity. Wondering what’s out there focuses our fears of loneliness and isolation while imagined encounters with other beings helps to clarify what it means to be human.

Nowhere is this more true than the latest space blockbuster, Arrival, which had its premiere at the London Film Festival and considers how the use of language and science contributes to our way of interpreting the world. Now a film about linguistics may not be everyone’s cup of tea but Arrival neatly integrates existential chat about the meaning and expression of life with the very human story of two academics bringing a restraining hand to the world’s trigger-happy military leaders.

In Denis Villeneuve’s film 12 mysterious spaceships arrive one day at seemingly random locations across the world. These tall cylindrical objects imply a mass alien invasion and a threat to the population of the world’s largest countries. Each contains two enormous squid-like aliens who have a message for the earth, yet, in order to understand their demands, scientists in each country must learn to interpret their language, and for that America, at least, calls on Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) a leading academic linguist who must work with mathematician Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to develop a relationship with their two invaders in order to decode their purpose and save the world.

The most notable thing about Arrival is seeing not just a female lead, who takes precedence over the numerous male military figures and experts, but one who is both intelligent and entirely credible – nicely written by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story. Adams plays Louise as a normal woman, albeit one who appears to be suffering from some kind of painful memory intrusion, who is excellent at her job, authoritative in her advice, increasingly brave and always appropriately dressed for her life. Thankfully, as is the wont of many of these kinds of film,  we don’t see her tottering around in tight skirts and high heels, but she looks and feels the part in comfortable combat trousers and checked shirts, minimal make-up and tied back hair – in short a breath of much needed air in the presentation of women in action films.

Louise is there and respected entirely for the professional experience she brings to the team and when her theories prove sound again and again, the surrounding men, for the most part, accept her superior knowledge and do as she asks. Now none of this is shoe-horned in, and it’s not a film specifically designed to present a female lead in this light – the movie is telling a reasonably straight-forward story of an alien landing and the subsequent interaction – but in plethora of Hollywood films, Louise stands out as one of the very few realistic and thoughtfully created characters whose gender is entirely irrelevant to her ability to do her job as well as anyone else in the room.

And all of this is in no small way down to Adams’s interpretation of the character, and, given she largely carries the film, brings a sensitivity to the role that adds considerably to the audience’s engagement. We see things from her perspective so from the early confusion created at the university to the slow process of gaining the alien’s trust and gently probing their understanding and use of language, we experience her wonder, frustration and sense of achievement as time passes.

By contrast Jeremy Renner has very little to do as the military mathematician side-kick and his character is rather less well fleshed out. Naturally he bumbles around at first emitting masculine certainty about the importance of science but as time and experience with the aliens begins to prove, Banks’s way is the right one, Donnelly softens considerably towards her. Renner does what he does well and as the relationship between the leads becomes increasingly involved you begin to root for their success, but other than a providing a contrast to Louise’s easier style, the role is a reasonably thankless one.

Similarly Forest Whitaker and the rest of the military crowd are expectedly bolshie and self-important. The contrast between the force of military might and insistence that the aliens must only have dastardly intent, with Louise’s softly-softly approach is well drawn, but as ever in these films the homogeneity of military force feels as faceless and instant as usual. This is equally played out across the world as the affected nations initially share data via video conference but soon begin to fracture as their own scientists make discoveries that scare them into potentially dangerous action. How this evolves is one of the key messages of the film and again reiterates the central importance of Louise’s approach in resolving the confusion presented by the random appearance of alien craft.

Villeneuve’s direction is most valuable and subtle in the encounters between the humans and the aliens, which takes place within their ship, separated (or protected) by an impenetrable barrier that keeps them for doing each other harm. These become surprisingly affecting moments as Louise and Ian’s initial fear of the alien form becomes a more scientific fascination with unearthing the root of their language and developing an unexpected bond with them.

Arguably they cut too frequently and too sharply between these interactions and life back at base, so the prolonged contact with the visitors is sacrificed to a need to show the rapid passing of time, but Marc Reichel’s special effects are incredibly atmospheric. The physical shape of the aliens in their form of part-squid part-tree-trunk with long spindly roots will invariably disappoint some but it’s a good decision to cloud them in a smoky fog which should allow the special effects to last longer without looking too dated, while adding to the sense of mystery that propels this film.

Far from being a film about the appearance of aliens, Arrival is more about the human approach to solving a particularly important and complex riddle. Part of that is about science and knowledge, painstakingly constructing all the information you need to make an informed decision while constantly rethinking your approach. Yet what this film really wants to emphasise is the importance of working together and sharing more unusual ideas in order to solve one of humanity’s most pressing problems. And whether you see it as a metaphor for climate change, poverty, financial crises or any other world-level problem, Arrival is a space film that’s full of heart about the world we know.

Arrival received its European premiere at the London Film Festival. It opens in the US and the UK on 10 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Nocturnal Animals – BFI London Film Festival

nocturnal-animals

Tom Ford is known for making incredibly beautiful things, and his first foray into film-making, A Single Man, managed to combine style and substance to great acclaim. His second feature, Nocturnal Animals, which premiered at the London Film Festival, takes his work in a slightly different direction, adding a somewhat grisly, high-stakes thriller element that contrasts with the beautiful world of a prosperous gallery owner played by Amy Adams.

Insomniac Susan is a rich and renowned art dealer whose latest blockbuster show opens the film – which we see in the opening credits as a warped homage to Bond’s gyrating ladies. But despite her success it’s clear her outwardly perfect life has plenty of cracks; her handsome second husband has failed to attend the opening and rushes off on yet another “business” trip with his mistress, while a growing sense of unreality and emptiness begins to trouble Susan’s quieter moments. Out of the blue her novelist ex-husband sends her the manuscript of his first book, dedicated to her and fulfilling the potential she saw in him during their brief student marriage. But as Susan begins to read, the disturbing morality tale Edward has sent her takes hold and changes her perspective on the past.

Ford’s film is all about the rottenness that exists beneath the surface of things and how people can never escape the consequences of bad choices. In many ways it is a classic revenge tale that takes the audience into three worlds; the first dealing with Susan’s current life, the second the world of the book, and finally Susan’s memories of her first marriage evoked by the story she encounters. Complex as it sounds Ford interweaves the narratives convincingly, creating a film that’s not just a beautiful object but one that aptly reflects its subject matter by being tense, dark and uncomfortable beneath the surface.

Multi-narrative films can be difficult to pull-off but when it works well, such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, each piece acts like a jigsaw adding depth and meaning to the rest. Here, our protagonist is Susan who, much like the central character in A Single Man, lives in one of those stunning one level, waterside houses that are all glass and extensive space, the type of home that speaks volumes about the lifestyle of the people inside. We also see her in her perfect white-walled gallery, an almost antiseptic environment that is all about surface suggestions of achievement but never seem to actually touch Susan’s inner life.

Amy Adams is superb as Susan, who, with surprisingly little dialogue, is required to convey a detachment from her day-to-day life, a lack of meaning and growing wish to reconnect with an earlier time of purer emotion. Heavily made up as a career woman, as we flit between the present and her student past, we see her former more honest appearance, understanding instantly, as Ford would like us to, that she has become someone that only exists on the surface of herself rather than the creative thinker she once was. The arrival of Edward’s book and her shocked, fearful and perplexed reactions to it are something that wakes her up to herself, which Adams conveys effortlessly.

The second narrative dramatises the plot of the novel Susan is reading about a family forced off the road by some reckless young men while driving along a lonely stretch of Texan desert one night. It’s a classic suspense opener as the family – husband Tony (Jake Gyllehaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) – discuss the decision to drive all night to their destination rather than break the journey. Soon they are engaged in a frightening confrontation with another car that harasses them for some miles before forcing them to pull over. The way in which Ford controls the tension here is fascinating, and has much in common with Spielberg’s first movie Duel, in which a faceless lorry driver pursues and attempts to kill a car driver for no apparent reason.

The tension only ratchets up from here on as the family are tormented further by their assailants before a series of dreadful crimes take place. This story, which eventually stretches over several months becomes an almost Shakespearean revenge tragedy in which the inevitability of destruction for all in involved is palpable. Cutting tightly between this and Susan’s reactions, often to a throbbing beat, creates strong associations between the two and it’s no coincidence that Edward’s female characters and his ex-wife have the same shade of red hair.

Jake Gyllenhaal is very affecting as a man set on an unexpected path after a random encounter that changes his life irreparably. Tony’s initial devastation grows into an anxiety for justice that eventually curdles into a thirst for brutal revenge at any cost, which Gyllenhaal convincingly plays. But what makes this section so engaging is the dangerous unpredictability of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray, who leads the gang of attackers. Ray is essentially your worst nightmare, someone who initially appears outwardly helpful but with an overconfidence brimming with treacherous intent. He is absolutely in control of every situation and orchestrates the separation of the family with cold-hearted perfection. Remorseless, calculating and even proud of his crimes, Taylor-Johnson’s performance is one of the best portrayals of mercenary mercilessness you’ll see this year.

Gyllenhaal’s weakness as Tony is contrasted with a few interspersed scenes as his ‘real-life’ alter-ego Edward whose young relationship with Susan contrasts, in her mind at least, with the complicated and sullied world she now lives in with the man she left him for. Here Gyllenhaal brings a freshness and ardent youth to Edward’s early dreams to be a novelist, while we get the first hints that he doesn’t deal well with criticism. Ford doesn’t linger too long on these sections but these fragments of memory are just enough to reveal Susan’s mind.

This hankering for simpler, purer times pervades the film and while the novel sections focus on the cost of revenge, it serves to reopen Susan’s mind about her past and the choices she made. But Ford also feeds this through the movie in other ways, particularly in one of the film’s wonderfully comic scenes in the gallery as Susan, facing a woman on her team with ridiculous plastic surgery, talks about a less-is-more ethos, a biting satire of the world Ford sees around him.

Much like A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is then a film about loss of self, about hankering for a happier time and the inability to ever go back. Ford handles the transition between stories with great confidence, nicely adding to the escalating tension and drama. The storytelling is somewhat linear and for the most part it goes where you expect it to, but Ford creates investment in his leads – and despite the crime story being a meta fiction within a fiction – the rising intensity and the contrast of sleek and gritty styles keep the audience’s attention nonetheless. Nocturnal Animals is not a perfect film, but it is a masterclass in taking a fairly straightforward plot and creating a suspenseful, sleek, beautiful, dark and gripping experience.

Nocturnal Animals was premiered at the London Film Festival and is released nationwide on 4 November in the UK and 18th November – 9 December in the US. More reviews from the Festival will follow as films as released in cinemas.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


American Honey – BFI London Film Festival

american-honey

No one makes films like Andrea Arnold and as her latest, American Honey, receives its premiere at the London Film Festival it’s hard to believe it’s only her fourth, so firmly has she carved her niche as a creator of beautifully-made stories of real working class life. Unlike so many ‘Hollywood-ised’ versions of urban poverty, there’s no sheen of glamour on the people Arnold focuses on, no designer dirt, just an honest account of what you would see in millions of homes, brought to the screen predominantly by a cast of unknown actors who bring a raw vitality to Arnold’s work.

Back in 2009, Arnold burst onto our radar with the astonishing Fish Tank, one of those rare occasions when a film unexpectedly knocks you sideways and lingers in your consciousness. Her tale of a feisty yet vulnerable teenager, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who dreams of becoming a dancer but fettered by her Essex council estate upbringing gets involved with her mum’s new boyfriend, Conor, who ambiguously sits somewhere between a father-figure and a predator (Michael Fassbender). It is an extraordinary film about the particular difficulties of being a young girl growing-up thinking she’s an adult but still a child in many ways, of the vulnerability and invincibility of being a teenager, and finding out who you are.

In her first US-based film, Arnold’s American Honey covers similar themes but with an equally absorbing and epic examination of the challenges of growing up with deprivation and want. At its heart is an exceptional performance by newcomer Sasha Lane who’s kind-hearted, yet strong protagonist Star exposes her vulnerability through a series of reckless escapades. Abandoning her home where she is the primary carer for her much younger sister and brother, while enduring the groping attentions of her step-father, Star spontaneously choses a life on the road with a rag-tag bunch of fellow teens selling magazine-subscriptions for a shady operator named Krystal. Along the way Star falls for senior seller, and Krystal’s supposed lover, Jake, while taking crazy risks to ensure she doesn’t get left behind.

Arnold’s film is a near three hour marathon that, after a brief scene-setting section about Star’s life, follows the group as they move around the south trying to find new markets to offload their wares. As ever with Arnold, the surroundings are pretty grim as the characters move from sleazy motel to sleazy motel, mixing with truckers, Christian middle class home-owners and oil plantation workers in a vision of small-town America that feels real and visceral. It’s never preachy though and like Fish Tank before it, American Honey takes an almost documentary approach to cataloguing the way in which people live, from grimy bedrooms strewn with trashy clothes to homes years-deep in grease and urban decay.

Yet the tone of the film is actually quite optimistic, hopeful and at times even aspirational as Star and her new friends enjoy a sense of freedom being on the road and a wide-eyed enjoyment of the constant newness of the world they experience by being part of this group. By drawing attention to these lives Arnold is actually reminding us that for all the media condescension both in the US and the UK, working class lives are as rich and filled with the same kinds of humanity as any other. Seeing this story through Star’s eyes allows the audience to experience these emotions with her, recognising how normal and rounded they are – from the pain of first love, to the fear of striking out alone and the satisfaction of beginning to find a way forward. And while it may be a long journey, Arnold’s intimate film uses this epic scale to show us that experiences are relative, and vary in personal significance.

Sasha Lane was one of Arnold’s random discoveries and her performance reveals how close to her real life upbringing American Honey is. In a sense, it picks up where Fish Tank finished to consider the consequences of a young girl abandoning the safe and familiar for a life of unknown self-reliance – in essence a coming-of-age tale. Star is a fascinating mix of contradictions, as many 18 year olds are, and having partially raised her siblings, she has a caring and responsible streak that becomes important as the story unfolds. Frequently we see her rescuing and releasing trapped insects – a nice metaphor for her own character situation – offering them a freedom she also craves. But this sense of right is often concealing an enormous vulnerability that allows others to take advantage of her. It is testament to Lane’s layered and impressive performance that Star is seemingly unaware of her own weakness, often recklessly going off with strangers so certain is she that she’ll make a sale, but with little regard for her physical safety. That idea of teenage invincibility is convincingly played and spending three hours with her the audience becomes convinced that, like Mia, she will always be fine.

Arnold also specialises in highly ambiguous male characters, and even at the end you’re never quite sure whether Shia LaBeouf’s Jake is a good guy or not. The only major star name in the film, Jake is Krystal’s number 2, training the new recruits and possibly sleeping with the boss. What develops between Jake and Star is initially a tender love story, as the old-hand is drawn both to her innocence and her willingness to criticise his sales technique. Yet at every turn, Arnold throws obstacles in the way to subvert expectation, never letting Star or us know whether Jake genuinely wants her, or is casually taking advantage. We hear repeatedly from Krystal that he’s also sleeping with her, but Arnold never visually confirms this either way, allowing us to understand Star’s confusion. LaBeouf keeps us guessing and his famous presence never overwhelms or detracts from the freshness of the remaining cast which is a valuable achievement.

The wider group are also a mix of newcomers and famous grandchildren (including Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) but their numerous scenes in the van have the comradely and frustrating feel of endless journeys, as they sing along to music the cast selected themselves, drink, smoke, take drugs and generally have a good time. And while none of them are drawn distinctly, in many ways this is a group of strays, like the random pets they acquire along the way, unwanted and unloved, clinging together for solidarity. Their leader Krystal is superbly played by Riley Keough who ruthlessly recruits and uses lost kids to make money for her scheme, much of which she appears to spend on clothes and beauty products while her exploited team sleep in one room and are forced to fight each other if they generate the least sales. Keough, a little older than her charges, is a brutal presence, happy to sell an idea of their flesh if it will make money and intent on keeping them down, while, as a warped mother-figure, ensuring they look to her for sustenance.

While much of the film takes us through cities and towns, the contrast of these urban environments with nature is ever-present. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan lingers on shots of butterflies on flowers, or vast open fields swaying in the breeze, while the way he captures light gives everything a vibrancy that is beautiful and engaging. Throughout the soundtrack is a mix of thumping rap beats with more introspective sounds that add poignancy, joy and sensitivity at crucial points.

As I said at the start, no one makes films like Andrea Arnold, and American Honey is a phenomenal piece of work that leaves an impact long after the credits role. It will remind you of the pain of growing up and how difficult that transition to adulthood was, while emphasising that everyone feels that way regardless of their backgrounds and experiences. Some may grumble at the length, but despite momentary lapses it is a compelling and beautifully told account of lives we still so rarely see on screen.

American Honey was previewed at the BFI London Film Festival and opens nationwide on 14 October in the UK. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: