Mindhorn – “It’s truth time!” for Julian Barratt’s hilarious fictional detective

•September 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Mindhorn (2016) is a character immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with cop shows from the 80s. From his leather jacket and turtleneck sweater, to his flash, fast car and beautiful girl on his arm, he is the very epitome of these TV detectives, albeit with the added ability of a bionic eye that lets him literally detect lies (coining his wonderful catchphrase: “It’s truth time!”). It’s the perfect recipe for success, both for the show and leading man Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt), who is at the height of fame when we first meet him. However, a disastrous TV interview during which Richard insults the whole of the Isle of Man (the setting for the show) and an ill-advised decision to head to Hollywood, quickly sees his star begin its slow, inevitable descent.

Julian Barratt as Detective Mindhorn...

Cut to 25 years later and the actor is living alone in a tiny flat in Walthamstow, his age and weight has caught up to him, and his luxurious hair has been replaced by a cheap wig. It is this rock-bottom version of Richard that writers Julian Barratt and Simon Farnaby recognise is ripe for comedy gold, as they show the one-time famous actor desperately and hilariously trying to reclaim some of the relevance he had all those years ago, whether that be by taking part in dubious casting calls, or advertising orthopaedic socks (a job now gone to rival John Nettles). So when Richard gets an offer from the Isle of Man police force to speak to a murderous criminal who thinks Mindhorn is real, Richard jumps at the chance, ready to squeeze everything he can out of this brilliant PR opportunity.

And squeeze he does as soon as he arrives back on the island, Barratt and Farnaby having fun with the notion of a man so bloated on his own ego and sense of fame that he can’t see how irrelevant he now is. Oblivious to the gaping mouths and incredulous stares that he induces, Richard swans around the police station (in glorious slo-mo and accompanied by the sax-ridden Mindhorn TV theme) making demands and treating it like his own personal dressing room, even though he’s only there to answer a phone call. Richard is so full of himself that he even believes he can slip back into the arms of his old flame and co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis), despite her now being with Clive (Simon Farnaby), Richard’s old stuntman. These scenes between Richard and Clive, or rather Barratt and Farnaby, are some of the funniest in the film, the two verbally sparring back and forth in brilliant moments that often seem unscripted (and probably were). The fact that Barnaby plays Clive with a ludicrous Dutch accent and often wears nothing but a pair of tight denim cut-offs only adds to the hilarity and the suitably bizarre tone felt throughout the rest of the film.

Clive (Simon Farnaby), Richard Thorncroft's new rival

With a sense of self-worth as big as his gut and the knowledge that he’d step on anyone to get back to the top, Richard Thorncroft could have easily been turned into a hateful character. But despite his dubious personality, Barratt excels at creating a man who is at once hilarious because of these flaws, yet also easy to sympathise with, a hint of pain and frustration often seen on his Richard’s weathered face as he comes across another setback in life. This tragi-comic tone is also noticeable throughout the rest of Mindhorn, particularly in the comparison of the Richard of the TV show era (recounted to us at the top of the film in perfectly grainy VHS footage) and Richard as he is now – a stark and immediate juxtaposition that while hysterical, adds a definite poignant edge as well. It is this undercurrent of melancholy that gives the film its heft, preventing it from becoming just another throwaway comedy.

Director Sean Foley is still keen to maintain a lightness of touch throughout the film however, keeping proceedings from becoming too dark and revelling in the many jokes that keep flying as Richard finds himself in more and more trouble. While the first two parts are entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny, there is a point towards the end of the second act when the film does lose momentum – a slight flaw in an otherwise tremendous film. This is soon forgotten about when we reach the last act though, the pace suddenly jumpstarted again as we begin to head to its superb side-splitting conclusion. It is here that Mindhorn really comes together, the film very much wearing its 80s TV influences on its sleeve as it descends into the usual fight scenes, car chases and shootouts, albeit in a brilliantly skewed way. It also features one of the funniest scenes of the whole film as Richard is given an unwelcome…update. Mindhorn 2.0 if you will.

Essie Davis as Patricia, Richard's old flame...

While this film is a magnificent comedy and one which is destined to become a cult classic, there will be many who compare it to that other famous British character whose life also had a rise and fall. Indeed, the comparisons to Alan Partridge are easy to make yet impossible to ignore. A man trying to reclaim his fame and alienating more people on the way? – very Alan. Even Steve Coogan himself appears here as a character who once played Mindhorn’s sidekick, and who now has his own inexplicably successful spinoff show. However Barratt is able to avoid the pitfall of repetition, here creating another iconic character who is all the more memorable for his funny yet anguished performance – something that adds a surprising layer of realism in amongst the more odd moments of the film. Barratt and Farnaby’s excellent script also makes this an instant hit in its own right, with the end result being a hilarious and endlessly quotable film that would more than hold up in repeat viewings, even if the pace does let it down in the middle. There hasn’t been any talks of sequels yet, but I sincerely hope that Mindhorn does return to the screen in the near future. I’d be more than excited for a little more “truth time”.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/79807/mindhorn/)

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The Hunt – A brutal depiction of small town paranoia

•August 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The main goal of the Dogme 95 movement was to create affecting, memorable films by focusing on story, acting and a natural filmmaking style in order to get to the truth of the narrative. It was Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) that was first created following this manifesto, this powerful portrait of a family with harrowing secrets given a startling ferocity by the organic Dogme style. Vinterberg wasn’t to have a film of similar success until The Hunt (2012), an Oscar-nominated piece that with its higher production values seemed to be a million miles from the Dogme movement the Danish filmmaker had founded. On closer inspection though, it still contains the same ideas and themes that would give Dogme its reputation – an aspect that has given it a chilling impact still felt when watching it today.

The Hunt (2012)

While Festen (aka. The Celebration) focused on a family unit slowly breaking down in the midst of accusations, The Hunt focuses on the unravelling of the life of one man in particular. Except this time the accusations are caused by a wrongly uttered word and the imaginations of both children and adults run wild. Writer-director Vinterberg is keen to slowly build to this devastation though, first introducing us to the small Danish town that serves as the backdrop to the story, as well as the close group of male friends at the heart of it who enjoy nothing more than hunting and drinking. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is one of this group, a teacher at the local nursery and someone well-liked and respected by the whole community. He also has a close bond with Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), one of the girls at the nursery and the daughter of his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen). This bond is suddenly torn in Klara’s eyes though when Lucas rejects a gift from her, and with her feelings hurt she unfortunately says something awful in front of the wrong person.

It is then that The Hunt becomes a film all about the spread of rumours and paranoia, the suspicions about Lucas suddenly causing the whole village to see him in a new, starkly horrifying light. That gradual build at the beginning of the film makes what follows all the more shocking, Klara’s misspoken words coming out of nowhere and setting into motion an avalanche that simply can’t be stopped, especially when further evidence of Lucas’ wrong-doings begin to pile up. Every new revelation is a punch in the gut to him and to us, Lucas at first hitting back and trying to clear his name, yet his resolve slowly crumbling as time goes on. Mikkelsen’s portrayal makes Lucas’ situation all the more tragic, his face a steady mixture of confusion, pain and fragility from the moment he first learns of the accusation, all the way through the film to a later scene during a Church service, which is both beautifully shot and unbearably tragic.

Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) is comforted by her mother Agnes (Anne Louise Hassing)...

Vinterberg and fellow scriptwriter Tobias Lindholm dig deeper than the simple story of one man disgraced though, choosing to make this as much about his accusers and how others close to him are irreversibly affected, such as Lucas’ son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) who is made into a pariah for merely associating with his own father. Vinterberg and Lindholm also focus on Klara herself, a child who is both naïve of the situation she has caused and knows she has done something wrong, but who no-one listens to when she tries to put her mistake right. This idea of her being an innocent child yet knowing more than people think is brilliantly backed-up by the strikingly natural performance Vinterberg coaxes from Wedderkopp, who seems wise beyond her years in some scenes and incredibly young and small at others, such as when she is first confronted about what she said, Klara simply sniffing and nodding along to the questions so she can stay out of trouble and go outside and play again. It is one of the greatest child performances ever captured on film, and another aspect that makes this dark and unflinching narrative all the more crushing – another person’s life ruined by the situation created, partly because of other people’s interference.

It is this scope to The Hunt’s narrative that gives the overall film a power that makes it impossible to forget, similar to Vinterberg’s portrayal of Festen’s tale. While that film’s impact was immediate due to its distinct style, to a certain extent that same Dogme method is present here too, albeit in a subtler way. Vinterberg treats each moment with a stunning naturalness in order to let the performances breathe, giving it a realism that often makes it difficult to watch. Scenes between Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen (a Festen alumni) particularly reflect this, their portrayals of two best friends slowly driven apart devastating and poignant. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography also has an interesting naturalness to it in some moments, the camera deftly capturing Lucas’ story alongside a pervading darkness that settles across every scene – a murkiness that hints at the communities own poisonous thoughts and responses to the situation, and a feeling that is present even in the final moments.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) shares a moment with his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm)...

Few films get under your skin in the way The Hunt does, its honest reflection of how a rumour can spread like a devastating virus shocking yet gripping. It is also an intricate look at a delicate subject, while at the same time a piece that is careful to hold no single individual to blame – a viewpoint that gives this a depth and verisimilitude rarely seen onscreen. Absolutely essential viewing that still packs a punch today.

Free Fire – Bullets and jokes fly fast in Ben Wheatley’s latest

•August 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Free Fire (2016)

A dingy warehouse in the middle of nowhere doesn’t seem like the most obvious place for an action-thriller shootout, or even the most ambitious setting for a film. Yet although Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire barely leaves the four walls of this abandoned building, his inventive story, brilliant cast of characters and superb direction has resulted in a riotous, exhilarating film that is a joy to watch from start to finish, even if you’ll sometimes be doing so from between your fingers.

Set in the 1970s, Free Fire takes place on one night in Boston, a group of nefarious individuals meeting up for a gun deal in said warehouse. Some are there because they’ve been ordered to, some are there to keep everything flowing smoothly – but all of them are there for profit. Tensions are high from the get-go, with an incorrect order, unreliable associates, and general ego boasting keeping them and us on our toes. Things are bound to go awry. And soon it’s shoot first, ask questions later, each trying to save themselves from becoming a moving target. “I forgot whose side I’m on!” screams a reluctant accomplice at one point, a line that perfectly and hilariously sums up the madness they all suddenly find themselves in. Question is: do the ‘sides’ even exist anymore?

Noah Taylor, Jack Reynor, Sharlto Copley and Armie Hammer in Free Fire...

Free Fire is slow to build up to this anarchy during the first part of the film, however once it gets there it is tackled with reckless abandon by the director, bullets ricocheting off the walls, dust flying and blood spurting. Each gun fight is choreographed down to the minutest detail, Wheatley keen to not only maintain the plausibility of the action, but also to keep us hooked with the relentlessness of it all. The exquisite, realistic sound design is such that we feel every bullet whizzing past their heads and every walloping impact, Wheatley putting us at the heart of everything and leaving us shaking as much as his ten put-upon main characters. Couple this with his inventive direction and the result is some truly gripping action sequences – a surprising achievement for a film that barely leaves the one room.

Justine (Brie Larson) tries to keep a cool head as the bullets start flying...

What is also surprising about this aspect of Free Fire is that it often results in some unexpected darkly humorous moments, a signature element in all of Wheatley’s films. Characters throw themselves around in an almost slapstick (yet hilarious) way sometimes, trying to use any method they can to make it to cover intact, whether that be hobbling along behind a moving object, or trying to persuade somebody else to do their dirty work for them. While a lot of Free Fire’s comedy comes from the ridiculousness of the situation, it also stems from the idiocy of these hapless characters, who are larger-than-life often to the point of caricature, but still utterly believable. Great characterisation from writer Amy Jump and Wheatley (who co-wrote) helps achieve this, as do the superb performances from the stellar cast, each of them fleshing out these brilliant creations and clearly revelling in every second. Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor and Brie Larson are all standouts in a sea of excellent roles (with Larson adding some much needed gravitas to the OTT of it all). However both Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley steal nearly every scene they appear in, Hammer a dapper, suave professional with a touch of the psychotic about him, and Copley a South African arms dealer with a swagger to match his overly expensive suit – a bravado that is soon proven to be false when it’s him versus everyone else.

Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley and Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire...

With the laughs and endlessly quotable lines piling up as much as the lies and bullet casings, Jump and Wheatley’s perfect pacing ensures we are nothing short of engrossed throughout, with even the quiet moments of their narrative hinting at a wealth of character backstory and things left unsaid; something that deliciously comes together at the end. Along with the slick action, outstanding performances, thrilling direction and exquisite cinematography (from the ever brilliant Laurie Rose), you’ll forget all about that one location setting and simply lose yourself in Free Fire’s rampant, raucous world. And although the American backdrop and well-known cast make this Wheatley’s most mainstream film so far, this is absolutely up there with his best, a particular standout due to its pitch-perfect humour, which makes it well worth multiple viewings.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix)

Doctor Who – Leave your misogyny at the (Tardis) door

•July 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The world of Doctor Who is a place I haven’t visited since the beginning of Matt Smith’s portrayal of the character – around the same time the storylines started to become repetitive and trite. Even Peter Capaldi’s casting (who I’ve been a fan of since The Thick of It) couldn’t entice me back to a show that continued to be increasingly tired, despite a select number of later episodes that seemed to be getting things back on track. Yet now, with the announcement of the casting of the 13th Doctor, a monumental change is on the horizon which is well worth celebrating, whether everyone wants it or not.

The portrayal of gender roles onscreen is something that has always been at the back of my mind, ever since my time at University. It was there that three very happy years of Film Studies opened up my eyes to all sorts of representation issues, both on film and TV. However the results that I was presented with in relation to women onscreen were shocking and, as a woman myself, almost depressing. Continuously objectified, often portrayed via damaging, badly written stereotypes, rarely forwarding the narrative in any significant way (other than when they die, which even now is used as a common plot point), and regularly featured as secondary, nearly mute characters, or not at all. Even when films and TV shows do try and break this mould, it’s disheartening how these are almost always attacked by criticism that male-led productions are rarely faced with (specifically Bridesmaids and the first season of Girls, which were both unfairly targeted for their portrayal of men. Because keeping male characters out of the picture is paramount to a crime).

Jodie Whittaker will be playing the 13th Doctor

It is for all these reasons that I really do applaud the decision to hire a female actor to play one of the most iconic characters on British TV. No longer will a woman simply be the Doctor’s companion, they’ll now be calling the shots and saving the world, one time travel trip at a time. It is something that not only opens up the show to a whole realm of hitherto unexplored possibilities, it also opens up the discussion of positive female representation onscreen itself. Yes, we’ve had plenty of leading female characters in Sci-fi and Fantasy shows before (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Orphan Black, Jessica Jones and many more). But there are no such long-running TV productions (to my knowledge) with a lead consistently portrayed by a male actor, and for that ‘norm’ to then suddenly be challenged. That change itself is evidence of the BBC and new showrunner Chris Chibnall actively deciding to make a positive step towards the future and address the gender imbalance onscreen, one which if successful, could well mean other productions following its lead, both original and otherwise.

With all this in mind though, I do recognise and understand those with worries about the future of Doctor Who. I should add here: those with legitimate worries. Those making unfair, misogynistic comments can (and will) happily be left behind by the show – it will flourish a lot better without ‘fans’ such as that (and judging by some of the harsher, sickening responses, this is a change that needed to happen, and one that should even have taken place sooner). No, the fans I understand are those who wanted a man to be chosen again for the role – those ones looking forward to seeing who would be picked next, and hoping for the series to stay as it was. Indeed, my wish list actually had three male names (Tim Roth, David Thewlis and Paddy Considine) and only two female actors (Zawe Ashton and Natalia Tena) on it. A man would have been a perfectly valid choice for the 13th Doctor, albeit a frustrating one for those celebrating last week’s news of Jodie Whittaker’s casting. However I believe these fans will be more that won over by the interesting road the series will now be taking – one which will certainly shake up a show that was rapidly running out of steam.

Similarly, I also understand and sympathise with those annoyed that a WOC hasn’t been chosen to play the Doctor. A decision such as this would have been immensely positive for representation of race onscreen (another current sorry state of affairs), as well as gender. The companion’s race has been challenged before, and recently their sexuality too, so why not the Doctor’s? While it can only be speculated as to why the BBC didn’t push the envelope even further, I believe they may have feared being labelled as ‘politically correct’, a description that has been unfairly attached to them even after Whittaker’s casting. The only minor positive that could potentially come from all this in relation to race, is that the success of an unconventional choice for the 13th Doctor will hopefully open up many more doors of diversity further down the line.

Doctor Who

There are plenty of others happy with the decision though, recognising this as a great time for the series and for female roles. However even some looking forward to what the show now holds are concerned as to whether it may simply be used as a gimmick to draw back viewers long since bored with it. That the writing and plots will remain as dreary as they previously have been. It is true that many of the naysayers will certainly be watching and waiting for them to slip up – a justification of the gender ‘issue’ that they are against already. Obviously whether it is a triumph is something that will only come to light next year, when we see exactly what Chibnall and the team of writers, directors, etc. have created for our eager eyes. Yet with a refreshing vision and a fantastic force in Whittaker at the helm (if you’ve not seen her in Rachel Tunnard’s excellent film Adult Life Skills, I highly recommend you do) I really am hopeful for the future of the Doctor and excited to see what comes next.

The one positive thing that few can (or shouldn’t) argue against, is what this casting means for young viewers everywhere. After all, although there is a huge adult audience for the show (myself included), at its heart Doctor Who’s core viewers are those younger few – those it has the most influence on. The Doctor has always been about treating everyone with kindness and helping others different to you. That although the world isn’t a fair place, you should always respect it as such. And now, young girls and boys can see how a strong female presence can promote this too. That they are just as capable of saving the Universe. I didn’t watch Doctor Who back in the 90s when I was young, but if I was a child now I can guarantee that I would have been obsessed with it. And my little self, who was so in love with Ghostbusters and X-Men back in the day, would have been over the moon at having someone just like me finally be the front and centre of such a big TV show. So forgive me if I actually shed a tear at the casting news – because THIS is what it is all about.

Prevenge – Bringing up baby can be a bloody nightmare

•June 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

While many films show the downs of pregnancy as well as the ups, there are few that portray it as being downright horrifying – of the fear of being unable to control your body because of something else inside of you. Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016) takes this idea in a literal sense and runs with it, in a darkly comic film about a heavily pregnant mother sent on a murderous rampage by her unborn. But you have to do “what’s best for baby”…right?

Prevenge (2016)

Mixing together elements of horror, comedy and drama (similar to Lowe’s screenplay for Sightseers (2012) which she co-wrote with Steve Oram), Lowe’s film is a twisted and unexpected take on pregnancy in which mum-to-be Ruth (played by Lowe herself) finds her life already being controlled by her baby before it is even born. Except this malevolent child craves more than just food, telling Ruth (in shrill voiceover) to kill anyone who gets in their way. Despite this almost supernatural element to the story though, Prevenge is a surprisingly realistic take on all things maternal, particularly due to the mix of genres Lowe chooses to use. Not only do these serve to keep the film gripping, ever-switching to keep us on our toes, they also create incredible tonal shifts throughout such as humour, rage, and pathos – all changes that perfectly reflect the rollercoaster ride that is pregnancy.

However the most obvious reason behind the film’s verisimilitude is the fact that Lowe herself was pregnant at the time of filming, something that adds gravitas to her role, but also a rarely portrayed, direct viewpoint into her character’s situation. Lowe takes all the insecurities of this time –  your hormones going crazy, your body literally changing before your eyes – and isn’t afraid to tackle them head on, albeit via the route of murder. This leads to an unexpected poignancy to proceedings throughout, particularly when Lowe reveals just why Ruth is being driven to kill (a backstory that works well as a pleasing mystery within the overall plot).

Ruth (Alice Lowe) puts on her war paint...

Lowe is keen to show both sides of the coin in her screenplay though, discussing the joys of motherhood as much as the bad, and focusing on the laughs even if they are sometimes found in the grimmest of moments. A superb ensemble cast including Kate Dickie, Gemma Whelan, Tom Davis, Dan Renton Skinner and Kayvan Novak, keep the comedy rolling throughout Prevenge, with one of the highlights being the brilliant Jo Hartley as a midwife who is a little too positive about childbirth for Ruth’s liking. Lowe and Hartley make an excellent comic pair onscreen, Lowe’s dry, dark performance working perfectly alongside Hartley’s more buoyant one. Yet when those sorrowful parts of the narrative do begin to emerge, both convince in these moments just as much as the comedic scenes.

While many will compare this to Lowe’s Sightseers, Prevenge is a whole new and original beast, something achieved through her candid storytelling approach as much as the more fantastical elements she uses. A groundbreaking production with a fascinating portrayal of a female character rarely seen on film, Lowe’s feature directorial debut is funny, dark and surprisingly sad, and driven by an outstanding central performance in which Lowe is able to squeeze humour from the gloomiest of moments, as well as a tear or two at the same time. The story might be simple, but what launches Prevenge to greater heights is its message: that sometimes the journey to motherhood is bloody hard. And it’s ok to admit that.

Ruth is ready for a killer night on the town...

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: http://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/79350/prevenge/)

Krisha – Secrets, lies and murky pasts in a devastating family drama

•March 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Krisha (2015)

Our introduction to the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is an intriguing, dreamlike opening shot of her staring out at us: vulnerable, lost, alone. It is one of many moments in Trey Edward Shults’ film that lets us into the true psyche of his character, while on the surface she appears to be all smiles and happiness at a busy family reunion. A touching yet hilarious film about secrets that won’t stay buried and a past that can’t be forgotten, Krisha (2015) is also filled with a wonderful authentic atmosphere that is felt in every element of the production.

This realism is felt from the moment we enter the house with Krisha, Shults using a stunning long take that follows behind her as she hauls her suitcase through the neighbourhood before she awkwardly greets family members she hasn’t seen for years. It is also in the semi-improvised dialogue that pervades every scene, Shults bravely letting his cast take the reins, something that they obviously find easy due to the fact that several of them are related to each other in real life. Along with the dialogue, this lends Krisha a free-flowing energy, characters talking over each other, the noise level never ceasing as each fights for acknowledgement amid the chaos. It also adds a brilliant comedic element to the film, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments happening amongst all of the family commotion.

Happy families as Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) looks on...

Yet what starts as a comedy gradually descends into a dark and moving drama as Krisha starts to lose her grip on herself and the situation she finds herself in. Krisha Fairchild is astounding in these moments, her riveting performance loathsome yet ridden with pathos – a character who is truly her own worst enemy. You don’t know whether to hate her or love her…or both.

It is also in these moments that Shults’ directorial style and cinematography really comes into its own, practically becoming another character in the film. While the constantly moving fluid camera at the start authentically takes in the actions of the tale instead of dictating it, the later, darker moments of Shults’ story are even more perfectly emphasised through his choice of cinematic devices. Switching to a different camera and smaller frame size, Shults compresses the tale and makes it seem as if we are inside Krisha’s own damaged mind, a method that adds a compellingly dreamlike edge as the story hurtles towards its conclusion. Inventive and engaging, this directorial style is also something that adds to the overall uniqueness of Krisha, something that would make repeat viewings wholly rewarding.

Krisha tries to reconnect with Trey (Trey Edward Shults)...

With the vibe of a Mike Leigh film and a palpable realism that is felt throughout, Krisha is one of the greatest representations of a family seen on film. Assembling a whole range of methods to bring his dysfunctional family to life, in particular innovative use of style and cinematic devices, Shults creates a gripping tale that is both hilarious and poignant. His film is all the more impactful for Krisha Fairchild’s stunning central performance – just one of the many reasons this perfect film will stay with you for a long time after watching it. That this is also Trey Edward Shults directorial debut is nothing short of astounding; a sentiment that perfectly describes the rest of the film too.

American Honey – The (beautiful) road to nowhere…

•February 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

It is only after watching Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) that you realise how much this sublime film has had a hold on you from start to thrilling finish. With Arnold’s poetic direction and entrancing cinematography, this isn’t just a film you watch – it’s something you experience alongside every step the characters take. And what a ride that experience is…

American Honey (2016)

A hypnotic road trip movie, this is also a film built on a pleasing sense of chaos, both in the plot and the free, almost guerrilla-style filmmaking approach that Arnold favours. Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan let the camera roll, taking in the action rather than dictating it, the cast of mostly unprofessional teen actors joking, drinking, bickering and fighting just as they would in real life. It is this method that gives the film an exciting, raw edge in which anything and everything could (and often does) happen to the reckless group on their travels.

Acting as our eyes into this mad, energetic world is Star, a poor Texan girl with a difficult (to say the least) life. Played with emotional maturity by the incredible Sasha Lane – another first-time actor who absolutely embodies the part – Star finds herself drawn into the group’s lifestyle after a chance meeting with Jake (Shia LaBeouf in another intense, standout role). Their eyes meet and soon he’s asking her to join their crew as they travel across America to sell magazine subscriptions to rich folks. With the promise of money and a handsome boy asking, how can she refuse?

Krystal (Riley Keough) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) keep the recruits in check...

It is this initial meeting scene that also makes American Honey impossible not to fall in love with, a simple yet wonderful scene brought to joyous life by the strains of Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, Jake and his crew dancing wildly to the tune while Star looks on in amazement. It is just one of many moments throughout in which the music becomes another character, a similar method Arnold used in Fish Tank (2009), in which some of the songs were even used to convey the whole message behind the film (with Nas’s ‘Life’s a Bitch’ at the conclusion speaking volumes without the characters ever saying anything). Arnold uses music in American Honey to also expand on the narrative or often just to let scenes breathe, pulling us into a moment so we are right there alongside the kids, whether they are partying or simply listening to rap music to pump themselves up before a working day. Indeed while this particular music is used by Arnold to show them united as a team, she also seems to be using it as a comment on the kids own backgrounds, with the lyrics about wealth or success almost mocking them in juxtaposition to their own poor, broken lives.

The theme of rich versus poor is actually what drives the film, Arnold directly comparing the lives of Star and the other kids to the wealthy families they visit door to door. Arnold lifts the lid on the underbelly of America (just as she did to the UK in Fish Tank and Red Road (2006)), exploring the causes behind the wealth divide and showing what people don’t want to see – desolate towns and families often made poorer because of drugs, a background Star knows only too well. At one point a trucker asks her what her dreams are and she doesn’t know how to reply. “No-one’s ever asked me that before” she replies in confusion. No-one has thought to – the life of a country girl from a dirt-poor, broken family doesn’t have much promise to it…

The brilliant Sasha Lane as Star...

And yet for all this, Arnold takes a completely different approach to what you would expect when portraying these American towns, her lens finding the unexpected beauty amongst the dirt. Yes, the bleakness is often there, Ryan’s cinematography conveying the stifling heat and the hidden horrors of these rough towns. However it also captures the heartening things we might miss if we don’t look properly, especially the magnificence of nature. Arnold often shows Star herself surrounded by nature – whether lying in the grass, or trying to rescue insects who are drowning in a swimming pool or stuck indoors – a girl who understands all too well what it’s like to be trapped by your surroundings, or simply just ignored.

With a strangely uplifting ending, American Honey will ensure you go out on a high, energy surging in your veins and the soundtrack still pumping in your ears. The unrehearsed performances along with Arnold’s loose direction and kinetic camerawork make this a genuinely thrilling piece of reality cinema, as well as a clever commentary on the rich-poor divide and the myth of the American dream.

Star and Jake share a moment...

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/79334/american-honey.html)