American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016)


American Honey finds British filmmaker Andrea Arnold roughing it with the impoverished class of 21st century America, imagining life at the lower-rungs as a procession of scams and brutal poetry, strip malls and butterflies, and insisting with all of her not inconsiderable filmmaking power that this world and its inhabitants are worth taking seriously. Or, to summon up a different vision of American poverty: “Attention must be paid.” An admirable goal to be sure, but urgency and good intentions do not a movie make. Arnold bets the house on the compassion borne from her closely-hewn style, which locks into the perspective of Star, a young woman running from a broken home and towards her meager dreams, via a tight Academy ratio frame and shallow-focus close ups. This closeness ensures that no matter how flagrantly grating the behavior gets—and whoo-boy does it grate—our complicity with the events on screen remains intact. It’s shorthand for empathy; a stylistic shortcut particularly common to the aesthetic Arnold adopts, which she employs unceasingly over the film’s extended running time. Realism shouts and spits in your face, apparently. And with so many moments constructed to put the audience in a confrontational position (either step up or step out), it’s worth asking: when does a repeated plea for empathy become a form of condescension? Tell us over and over again that these caricatures are worth taking seriously as people and I might wonder if you yourself have some doubts.

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