⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens.
There’s a lot of animal life on-screen in this rough-hewed, emotionally haunting road trip. As a gang of young rip-off artists disguised as magazine peddlers travels across seedy Southwest landscapes, we encounter bees, wild horses, moths, a flying squirrel, a baby turtle, a curious visiting bear, industrious insects viewed in quick close-ups, even an agave worm larva at the bottom of a mezcal liquor bottle. Each has symbolic meaning. But the real bestiary is the always moving van full of male and female teen grifters at the center of the story, strays coming of age in harsh Nowheresville, America. Locked in an underworld “Oliver Twist” lifestyle, each one is a mutt, ready to angrily bite or wag a tail.
The film is shot and acted with matter-of-fact documentary style. In the hands of British writer/director Andrea Arnold, one of the most talented women making movies today, the film has a lusty primal quality that is threatening and hard to resist. It is sexed-up, unlike Charles Dickens’ classic, but shares its goal of profound social criticism, dramatizing the troubles of the sub-working-class poor in a way few others attempt.
Unknown beginner Sasha Lane reveals breathtaking talent as Star, a complex, impoverished 18-year-old runaway recruited to the ragtag sales team. She learns how to collect cash with dubious magazine subscription pitches. When suckers open their front door and invite them in, quietly stolen valuables may be added to the bill.
Her mentor is a swaggering Artful Dodger type (Shia LaBeouf, surpassing anything he has done before). The thieves’ diabolical Fagin (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) is a chilling top dog.
It’s not their goal to carry Star to the life she needs. (“This ain’t a charity,” the den mother snarls.) Can she find her own way, since she’s not sure what she wants other than a trailer of her own to live in? Will anyone treat her with the compassion she shows to a turtle late in the story, returning it to a lake where it can swim free?
At just over two hours and 40 minutes, “American Honey” is ambitious in theme and scope, making us feel at times as lost and trapped as Star. The cast captures the hope and sorrow of the story. Rather than Dickensian humor, Arnold brightens the atmosphere with a rich soundtrack of songs such as Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” Playing the hits is the team’s morale booster, fueling singalongs and gymnastic dance outbursts that are completely bananas.
Following her excellent unromantic adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” this is Arnold’s first feature film in the United States. With luck, she’ll return soon.
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Unrated: Suitable for all audiences. In English and many subtitled languages.
Veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, whose work includes celebrated nonfiction including Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” and Michael Moore’s Cannes winner “Fahrenheit 9/11,” metaphorically turns the lens on herself in this remarkable collection of visual bits and pieces. Johnson has captured amazing slices of life around the globe with an artist’s eye, and viewing them shuffled together seemingly at random is like viewing our world through an explorer’s clear, clean lens.
Without delving deep into autobiography, Johnson plainly reveals who she is: an adventurer of rare courage and chosen anonymity, willing to share her experiences without stepping into the frame or steering the conversation to an assumed conclusion. She creates a visual essay that is deeply moving, even poetic.
Filming a refugee family in Bosnia, she watches a very young boy practice his hatchet swings against a tree trunk while his smaller, curious little brother moves frightfully close. She groans her worry behind the camera but doesn’t leap into the threat, as people committed to ethically recording the real world don’t do. (Tragedy doesn’t strike.)
Her footage introduces us to a charming Nigerian midwife, her own mother and twins and an Afghan boy being instructed by a documentary director to do an interview in his native tongue rather than the English he speaks flawlessly, because that would sound better.
Johnson offers a portrait of her life and work side by side, each challenging and rewarding the other.