Andrea Arnold is a filmmaker who stands out for a number of reasons, but her focus on social realism as a subject and style is one that stands out more than others. Before American Honey, her first American film, Arnold stuck to British urbanism. From her first short Wasp, to the later features Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold’s films have explored the lives of the working and underclasses in Britain, using female leads who are often outsiders in their communities. So with American Honey being set in a place never before explored by the British director, how does the realist style that she adopts so well in her home country travel abroad?
What makes Arnold’s work so interesting is that her use of these real locations, and tendency to shy away from set dressing for increased sensationalism, reflect to a certain extent the real atmospheres of the working classes in Britain. Unlike hyped up versions of underclass thrillers like Harry Brown (2009) that began to appear as a response to the fear of the underclasses living in council estates grew in the mid 2000s, Arnold’s movies use location to their advantage, as a setting for character study rather than exaggerating reality and demonising the people who live in lower class households in the real world.
For example, the Red Road flats in Glasgow, the eponymous setting for Arnold’s 2006 thriller Red Road, were mostly empty while filming: the tenants had evacuated in anticipation of the flats being demolished due to high levels of crime and disrepair. Arnold chooses to present this cluster of social housing as a sad failure rather than an intimidating and crime-filled wasteland. Her establishing shots take on a documentary quality, presenting her locations and characters in an unfiltered and unexaggerated way. This means that unlike films like Harry Brown, Arnold rarely needs to use a lot of shocking images of violence or confrontation to create an intense experience. Her focus on presenting an unfiltered view is shocking enough, as it exposes poorer areas of Britain in a way that doesn’t openly condemn a class that has often been falsely advertised.
Continuing in this style for her new film, Arnold doesn’t need to use images any more shocking than that of an empty fridge in American Honey. Star (Sacha Lane) struggles to feed herself and her siblings, the image of the fridge comes back to haunt her across the film, representing the poorest of American society in a way that hasn’t been seen in British examinations of the working class. Arnold avoids using crime or violence to present groups of people unless they have time for it – Star and her peers are temporarily free from the constraints of class as a result of their road trip, so have time for unruly behaviour, taking centre stage and opening themselves up to to be judged by the audience instead of the poor households that they encounter. Arnold uses the teens to avoid demonising the underclasses, choosing to present the lowest American classes as a cycle of need and addiction that isn’t necessarily criminal.
As we have been exposed to Arnold’s dressed-down style of filmmaking in her previous films, which feels more truthful than its urbanist rivals, it stands to reason that American Honey also feels truthful in its realist presentation of America. Still sticking to her forte of focusing on the working classes and using non-professional actors (Sasha Lane was approached on a beach and had no acting experience), Arnold’s film feels as real as those that precede it. The camera follows the bunch of teenagers selling magazines door-to-door as if documenting a tour, using closeups and capturing material that feels unscripted to create a closeness to them that feels natural and unforced. Arnold’s presentation of the rich and poor of America feels as if we’re watching with an unedited eye – often seeing the surrounding areas from the van window, the audience views the gap between classes along with the wild but understanding and well-travelled eyes of the teens.