This lazy trawl through the American Midwest starts, like The Grapes of Wrath, in Oklahoma and ends in the middle of nowhere. Just like that novel and Huckleberry Finn and On the Road and Bonnie and Clyde etc. there is the feeling in American Honey that travel will resolve all one’s problems: if you keep on moving then your past can’t catch up, and you might just find that elusive thing called the American Dream. The film’s protagonist Star (Sasha Lane) is named after an otherworldly body, and she sure struggles to find any satisfaction on this planet. Star comes from a broken, meth-addicted home, is a victim of sexual abuse, and has no future prospects. Then she locks eyes with rebel hunk Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a supermarket just as Rihanna blares out on the radio: ‘We found love in a hopeless place’. It must be a sign, surely? Jake certainly wants her to think so: he jumps up on a counter and starts goofily dancing, and is soon being shooed out by security.
It turns out that he belongs to a gang of youths who travel around America selling magazines – sales being the natural arena for all rags-to-riches tales, after all. Star thinks that this really is her chance to escape, to follow her Dream. It doesn’t take a cynic, just a lifelong fan of American fiction, to know that things won’t be so simple, that the American Dream can’t be so easily pinned down.
I love this film, and the somewhat tepid reception that it’s received from the British press hasn’t dulled that. The main criticism seems to be concerning its length – at 160 minutes it does take quite a chunk out of your day, but hardly a second of it is wasted. It’s been pointed out that long scenes of the gang singing along to rap/pop/indie/country songs don’t contribute much to the plot, but (British) director Andrea Arnold is alert to the ways in which music forms an essential aspect of life for working class communities in America; capturing the atmosphere of that participatory experience is an integral part of the film’s grand design. It brings these kids, who have emerged from different U.S. states, together into something akin to a family. Just for a moment they can find love in a hopeless place.
Luxuriate in the film’s relaxed pace, marvel at the naturalistic performances from a largely amateur cast, feel the damaged sexual tension between Lane and LaBeouf. Most of all, notice how Arnold builds up a poetic critique of the allure of American capitalism, without a hint of ironic sneering at the lives caught up in its empty promise. The shaky, handheld, out-of-focus photography keeps on picking up visual meanings that seem to have eluded most reviewers; in particular keep a sharp eye out for animals, which become a crucial recurring motif. And remember that although it’s certainly peculiar how the police never turn up, despite occasionally criminal endeavours, that’s exactly the point. No one cares about these kids, who have fallen through the cracks of American society, and they are left to their own devices. Which is both enthralling and terrifying for them.
It’s a confident and compelling addition to Arnold’s filmography, just one of a spate of outstanding British filmmakers to have emerged in the last decade. Another is Clio Barnard, whose exceptional The Selfish Giant also concerns this generation’s betrayal of its youth and the natural world. American Honey is never quite as moving as that film, but it comes close.
Revolution Radio – Green Day
Relistening to Green Day’s oeuvre recently left me with the same sinking feeling that I’ve had relistening to Muse and The Killers, a feeling that the bands which seemed so brilliant in my adolescence might not be all that. The difference I think is that I listen more carefully now, and these bands just don’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny, despite the occasional nuggets of pleasure they might throw up. Green Day are at their best when at their tightest, in the compressed songforms of Dookie especially, yet when they sprawl on American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown it’s hard to avoid hearing the vacuity that used to plague 70s prog-rock albums. Robert Christgau described it as the ‘sound of confusion taking itself seriously’, and though I used to suspect that such opinions were formed out of an elitist rejection of the pop-punk genre, he was right.
‘Confusion taking itself seriously’ would be a good tagline for this album, which returns Green Day to the political battlefield after 7 years MIA. Nobody much cared for their trilogy of albums released in 2012, ¡UNO!, ¡DOS!, ¡TRÉ!, so in a bid for critical adulation they are back on the hollow slogans production line. ‘Legalise the truth!’ ‘We live in troubled times!’ ‘We’re outlaws of redemption!’ ‘I wanna start a revolution!’ They don’t trouble themselves with who the ‘we’ or ‘I’ might be, all that matters are supplying the hooks for arenas filled with young liberals to scream along to. As a young liberal myself I should salute, but in the current Brexit/Donald Trump climate I’m deeply wary of the damage caused by oversimplification, and Green Day’s inability to describe the specificity of real-life politics has about it the unpleasant odour of apathy.
Of course, I used to like American Idiot because I employed my own brand of apathy: I ignored the lyrics. I tried this tack again with Revolution Radio, but listening with brain switched off turned out to be a deadening experience. ‘Somewhere Now’ stands out for its summery vibe, using cooing backing vocals and sunny chord changes that seem to suggest a better state of mind for Billy Joe Armstrong following years of alcohol addiction and a stint in rehab. That’s the highlight folks, because from there the ‘power trio’ fall back on the tried-and-tested pop-punk routine which used to be entertaining back in the 90s but now sounds wooden, particularly without the rhythmic elasticity that livened up hits such as ‘Longview’, ‘When I Come Around’, and ‘Brain Stew’, to name a few favourites. My head nodded in time only to stay awake, and none of the choruses urged me to sing along. And why does Armstrong’s voice strain for sincerity with every note, relinquishing the wit and pathos and intelligence that made The Clash, their obvious inspirations, one of the greatest of all rock bands?
We should be thankful that they’ve given up the haphazard ‘concepts’ of their Broadway era, and the ballad overkill of 21st Century Breakdown in particular. But really, the political situation is so appalling these days, we need our icons of rebellion to invest more into their words than just hazy generalisations. In which case I strongly urge you to bypass this album in favour of the Drive-By Truckers’ American Band, an instant classic that should give you a lot more hope for the future.