by Matthew Eng
There can be a maddening rigidity to the phrase “political film.” The dominant concept still maintains that a political film must be hyper-realistic as it holds a mirror up to the society that spurred it. It has precise points and lucidly argues them. It is timely, relevant, and, to paraphrase one cinematic touchstone, mad as hell about current power structures and not going to take them anymore. Amid the turbulence of 2016, two fictional films from celebrated British filmmakers debuted on the world stage with strikingly dissimilar notions of what might classify a film as “political”: Ken Loach’s bristling critique I, Daniel Blake and Andrea Arnold’s opaque odyssey American Honey.
When George Miller announced that he and his eight-wide jury had awarded the Palme d’Or to Loach’s film at the Cannes Film Festival back in May 2016, even the viewers who generally admired the newest effort from the prolific, 80-year-old activist-auteur seemed perplexed. As I, Daniel Blake heads into Oscar season with a prestigious prize but waning interest, the best thing to be said about the film is that it represents a form of artistic protest that is seldom rendered with such pointed force. Loach’s latest targets Britain’s benefits system, which remains patently rigged against those it was always intended to aid. In this film, that includes Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), an aging, ailing Newcastle craftsman who gets the bureaucratic runaround while seeking a disability allowance, as well as Katie (the astonishing Hayley Squires), a scrambling, newly-relocated single mother with two kids and capped benefits whose life merges with Daniel’s after he intervenes during a tense quarrel at a welfare office.
As with so many of Loach’s films, the central achievement of I, Daniel Blake is its willingness to shine a spotlight on lower-class individuals who are rarely foregrounded in popular cinema. The film is keenly attuned to and endlessly empathetic toward the realities of poverty, which is a testament to Loach’s bone-deep humanism. At times, the film also reminds us what a compelling dramatist Loach can be, not in spite of but precisely because of his inability to put aside his beliefs: a harrowing scene of desperation in a food bank is as urgent a plea as any to improve the welfare of the lower classes. I, Daniel Blake remains an undertaking worth lauding, but cause-driven filmmaking has its pitfalls, and Loach is not exempt from them. His screenplay, written with longtime creative partner Paul Laverty, can veer into diatribes and clichés. Good-hearted Katie descends into prostitution which, consequently, sticks Daniel with the role of sensitive male savior—a crude and unavoidably musty plot turn, despite both actors’ credible self-control. A scowling female unemployment officer is introduced early on as the personification of bureaucratic indifference, as though Loach were intent on qualifying her for some film-villain-of-the-year derby.
I don’t mean to suggest that Loach ought to offer some kind of of deferential respect for all viewpoints, because that clearly isn’t his goal; a Loach film will always side with David over Goliath. But this imbalance of sympathies too often results in films that are themselves imbalanced. Loach works with a heavy hand, imposing static scenarios and crystal-clear polemics on his characters where a subtler director might have conveyed the message through images or behavioral observations rather than rhetoric. At times, one gets the sense that I, Daniel Blake would pack the same punch as a radio play as it does as a motion picture, a testament to the force of Loach’s unwavering agitprop but not, necessarily, to his filmmaking, which remains roundly unconcerned with expanding its visual imagination.
Loach’s cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, has one of the most distinctive eyes in world cinema today, and he contributes an atmosphere of oppressive, slate-gray grubbiness to I, Daniel Blake. But one gets the sense that Ryan has stifled his natural creativity to fit Loach’s ethos. Conversely, Ryan feels utterly unbound from any aesthetic constraints in Arnold’s splendid American Honey, which follows a squad of wayward, whiskey-guzzling millennial magazine-sellers as they fight, fuck, and motor across some of America’s most destitute cities.
Arnold’s film competed alongside I, Daniel Blake at Cannes, where Arnold earned her third Jury Prize, and American Honey serves as a fascinating counterpoint to the film that bested it for the top prize. Although its cool reception earlier this fall threatens to solidify its popular legacy as little more than The Film That Shia LaBeouf Ruined His Hair For, American Honey remains a remarkably ambitious cinematic undertaking. Arnold is forging a kind of egalitarian filmmaking, where the individual efforts of each and every collaborator pull equal weight: the restless ingenuity of the director; the enthusiastic and uninhibited commitment of her ragtag ensemble; the flowing and pristine editing style of Joe Bini; and the sound technicians who have created a thrumming aural atmosphere that rattles and grinds with Rae Sremmurd, Rihanna, and a multitude of other mainstream artists whose boisterously-curated tracks are each invaluable components of Arnold’s splintered American sprawl.
Andrea Arnold is forging a kind of egalitarian filmmaking, where the individual efforts of each and every collaborator pull equal weight.
Yet it’s Ryan, Arnold’s DP-of-choice since her Oscar-winning short Wasp, who is the film’s most valuable player. In American Honey, Ryan’s camera masterfully shifts between the roles of hyper-attentive witness and roving participant, making gobsmacking use of natural light and crafting some of the most indelible images of his underappreciated career. He shoots leading lady Sasha Lane—playing our heroine, Star, an orphaned teenage runaway and the group’s newest recruit—with such intoxicating extreme close-ups that his lens all but grafts onto her like a second skin. When Star finds splendor in the grass with LaBeouf’s rakish, rat-tailed organizer, Jake, Ryan shoots their hook-up with such deep-down, bone-quaking intimacy that both actors appear to be sprouting up from the earth itself. Some of Ryan’s best shots veer away from the film’s human subjects to tell clever and concise stories all on their own: a frozen dumpster chicken oozing on the side of the road; a swarm of ants laying siege to a stray french fry in an empty refrigerator; a gummy bear clinging to the van’s sticky-hot window; the headlight of a passing truck morphing into a setting tangerine sun as it flickers and fades behind a line of trees.
These images unfold with the strange and subjective distortion of a daydream, but their beauty is grounded in an honesty about the world Arnold depicts. American Honey does not, at first glance, appear to be a political film; its political insights are not of the self-consciously pointed sort that works, Loach-like, toward one ultimate, all-encompassing plea. “If I’m making a film, it’s going to be influenced by me and what I’ve seen,” Arnold recently told The New York Times, the same publication whose article on cross-country “mag crews” inspired Arnold’s film. “[My film is] never going to be like a huge truth, because everyone’s truth is different. I’ve experienced America in a completely different way to anybody else, so it’s going to be my version.” Before the film went into production, Arnold made several solo road trips across America, where she encountered the type of debilitating rural poverty that she renders unflinchingly throughout Star’s voyage, as well as in Star’s own home life, which is characterized by grim flashes of empty refrigerators and sexual abuse in the film’s pre-getaway prologue. But unlike I, Daniel Blake’s righteous broadsides, American Honey’s treatment of inherently political subjects (race, class, gender, sexuality) is wrapped in ellipsis and ambiguity.
Tensions simmer and subside throughout American Honey, with Krystal, the crew’s mercenary ringleader, assuming the role of chief instigator. Played with a perma-scowl and a burnt-apricot tan by a magnificently viperish Riley Keough, Krystal is a nasty piece of work, a capitalistic Southern belle who offers her roustabout teens a freewheeling impression of freedom and family, all the while withdrawing herself to private motel rooms with Jake, her consort/flunky, to count and pocket their hard-earned profits. Her cure for boredom? Forcing the two lowest earners to savagely duke it out for the amusement of the group and their commander.
When Star’s arrival into the unit pushes Krystal out of Jake’s foremost affections and briefly disrupts the (cash) flow of things, she quickly makes herself a prime target for Krystal’s scabrous ill will. This is perhaps because Star is a charismatic, dreadlocked black woman impeding on the personal and monetary property of a Southern-bred entrepreneur. Star’s racial identity is never discussed in American Honey, nor is blackness in general, despite the omnipresence of black rappers and singers on the soundtrack and the fleeting black faces (aside from Star’s) that appear sporadically in the film. It would be easy for a screenwriter to pin Krystal’s disdain for Star as straightforward bigotry and categorize their strain as a deeper racial conflict, but Arnold sustains intrigue by never making this explicit. Instead, she leaves it up to her images and scenarios to slyly convey the prickly dynamic’s deeper meanings. In one scene, Krystal dresses-down Star while clad in a newly-bought Confederate flag bikini. Jake scurries around on his knees, smearing liberal amounts of tanning lotion over Krystal’s legs and nodding stonily in agreement as Krystal chastises his latest sweetheart. It’s a reassertion of dominance by way of decadent spectacle, where power comes in the form of racist iconography emblazoned on a skimpy piece of apparel.
By embracing an intrepid visual vocabulary and detaching itself from any decisive critiques, Arnold’s film achieves a depth of empathy that is afforded to just about every individual Star comes across. American Honey’s coming-of-age story unfurls like a patchwork flag, of which Star’s story is just one piece. She is our protagonist, but she is also just another passenger, traveling the same roads as everyone else. One of the film’s richest and most enigmatic scenes finds Star as a literal passenger in someone else’s ride, sitting shotgun alongside a soft-eyed, middle-aged truck driver to whom she’s trying to peddle off some magazine subscriptions. They talk about his love of sailing, even though he has never seen the ocean. He shows her snapshots of his just-married daughter, who might be close to Star’s age. He asks Star about her dreams—a question she has never been asked. At one point, Bruce Springsteen’s rumbling cover of “Dream Baby Dream” comes over the radio and the two sing along. Throughout all of this, Arnold’s direction remains impressively unhurried and her patience deepens the interaction’s mystique. The situation builds from the scenario’s latent sense of danger—i.e. young girl trapped in moving vehicle with older man—to instead etch a humane portrait of two weary travelers whose journeys momentarily intersect. When the driver ultimately buys some subscriptions from Star, his underlying motivation could be anything from pity to arousal to genuine interest. When Star parts ways with him, only to realize, with surprise, that she has been riding a cattle truck the entire time, this too complicates our perceptions without force-feeding us a message.
American Honey forcibly rubs and shoves against the boundaries of cinema until it spills out into its own paths, down which it can impulsively wander and explore.
If the politically-pointed but inevitably simplified I, Daniel Blake cements Ken Loach as a director who cares about the state of his country but doesn’t trust his audience to understand more than one message at a time, then American Honey solidifies Arnold as a filmmaker with faith in her audience’s ability to closely engage with her work and create their own meanings. Though not expressly political, American Honey reveals itself as a film that might be more in tune with the needs of a contemporary political cinema, especially one made in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump. (The latter actually gets a shout-out in an early scene of Arnold’s film, as LaBeouf openly wonders whether his dress pants and suspenders evoke the man who was only a far-flung presidential hopeful at the time of American Honey’s production.) Arnold is as aware of the painful parts of society as Loach is, but she sees in all directions and her film evokes a multiplicity of sides without passing judgments or spinning her narrative into a tale of us vs. them.
Star is undeniably an outsider, but in ways that diverge from the displaced identities of the mag crew. She stares in shock at the copious birthday gifts laid out in the living room of a white, upscale Kansas City family, whose house Jake has elbowed his way into, then seethes when their host condescends to them. Later on in the film, she retaliates against Jake by hopping into the backseat of a Cadillac driven by three greying cowboys, who take her home and plow her with tequila, all the while circling and staring at her like some eroticized Other. And then there is the late-film group singalong to the titular Lady Antebellum country track, throughout which Star is the only one in the crew to remain completely silent. She stares with nervous uncertainty as these white men and women sing a song whose words have never belonged to her, evoking a gated, time-honored industry—and thus an entire world—that she will never readily be invited into. In another director’s hands, this scene could be purely menacing, a millennial remix of Cabaret’s “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” scene. But Arnold’s vision remains so hopeful that the moment isn’t purely exclusionary. At one point, QT (Verronikah Ezell), the crew’s endearing butch teddy bear, turns to Star and sings, finding and including her with a warm smile that seems to ward off Star’s encroaching disillusionment, if only for a verse.
American Honey forcibly rubs and shoves against the boundaries of cinema until it spills out into its own paths, down which it can impulsively wander and explore. It pushes the medium forward, but it also attempts to bridge the gaps in political cinema that few filmmakers can even discern. These changing times demand more directors like Arnold, who is doing something much more intricate than delivering messages or holding up a mirror to reflect the world as it appears. Arnold captures the desolation of the milieus her characters inhabit, but she refuses to withhold hope or beauty for the sake of starkness, or to ignore her poetic instincts in the name of sheer authenticity. Watching Star stumble and soar throughout American Honey, one can envision what political filmmaking might continue to become in the next few years: less a mirror than a window, opening outward onto an alternative view of the world, in which reality and imagination are not alienated, but allied.
Matthew Eng is a writer and editor with Tribeca Film who has contributed to Little White Lies and The Film Experience. He also co-hosts Asian Oscar Bait, a podcast that recounts true stories of Asians from history and pitches them to Hollywood as a way to boost Asian representation in the media. He lives in Brooklyn and believes there is no higher power than Gena Rowlands.