It’s a long, meandering journey across parts of America that too few other films have documented, and there’s a lot here that really is beautiful and diverting. To see those boundless roads, those sprawling suburban homes, the strip malls and motels that lie in the interstices, the young people living precariously, dumpster diving, doing rubbish jobs, all to make ends meet. It’s not entirely new exactly — exploring the lives of the young, suburban precariat seems to be something of a niche sub-genre these days — but there’s a genuine energy to Andrea Arnold’s use of non-actors and her beloved Academy ratio to box up an unpalatable society. At some level it’s possible to develop an empathy towards most of the characters — even Shia LaBeouf’s exploitative, slightly creepy boss Jake (and he is definitely on the abusive side at times, for all his charm at others), who himself reports to an even more venal and demanding one (in the form of Krystal, as played by Riley Keough) — not least newcomer Sasha Lane in the central role of Star, who does very well indeed.
And yet, for all that I admired about it (loved even at times, more than in many of Arnold’s films), I can’t say I fell for the film in its entirety. Much of the weakness I think lies in the script. Indeed, I didn’t really believe that the job the characters are doing (selling magazines door to door) still exists, and for me there was a strong sense that issues were being raised along the way that were never really tackled. For example, others have written persuasively (here’s one piece at Fishnet Cinema and here’s another at Gal-Dem, both by women of colour) about Arnold’s deployment of race: Lane is half-black, yet there are no other significant black characters in the film (a crack-addicted mother, and the almost-dreamlike — because so fleeting — encounter with another, black, crew). Much of the music is excellent, but a lot of it comes from a specifically black perspective, and using African-American vernacular which is parroted by Krystal’s crew without any apparent self-awareness (undoubtedly due to their youth; one gets the sense that the music itself may have come from the cast rather than Arnold). Krystal wears a Confederate flag bikini at one point, but her ‘redneck’ status never comes into play at a dramatic level. Moreover, there are no racialised conflicts in the film, though as a strategy Arnold seems in general to be avoiding overt conflict in favour of setting up situations that seem to be going that direction, before defusing them or taking another route. Structurally, the film does this continually: building up an impression for the audience of where it’s going before feinting in another direction. It’s a strength and a weakness, to my mind.
For all the reservations I have, though, as a loose, rambling take on the American journey in quest of an ever-illusory American Dream, it has a compelling quality.
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough; Length 163 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 19 October 2016.