I’ve got to agree with max, this film is really problematic. Worse, it’s condescending, pre-judging its characters based on economic circumstance in attempt to make larger, reductive points about American culture. The photography is beautiful to look at a lot of the time: sun-drenched landscapes and ethereal visions of nature, strong shadows and light dancing contrasted with vast swaths of vulgar human constructions like gas stations, big-box discount stores, truck stops, and architecturally lacking cookie-cutter tract homes, but it could have benefited from more of the associative imagery of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher
and less of the wandering eye of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder
to offset the repetitiveness and simplistic message the visuals conveyed.
The conceit of the story is a strong starting point — a-down-on-her-luck girl joins a group of impoverished kids traveling door to door selling magazines (which gives the director an excuse to show several slices of modern America), but the device is used with extreme bias. Andrea Arnold has cherry-picked the most perverse parts of American culture for sideshow display, which would be fine if the film were more insightful or even distant (I’m a fan of Harmony Korine and half of Larry Clark’s oeuvre), but as it is it’s not with the aim of understanding it or representing these people and situations fairly, but for cheap dramatic effect (bunch of rich white Texans want to fuck a poor girl on the street, Christian mother is judgmental and hypocritical, dead beat parents go dancing and drinking instead of taking care of their kids, white trash people display confederate flags, etc.). These characters are never given a chance - they’re bad examples of how “fucked up” the United States is from the moment we meet them. The film doesn’t go very far beyond this. Star (Sasha Lane) even declares herself “America” while standing up in a stolen car at one point, then prostitutes herself a few scenes later. Very deep. So deep.
I’m pretty shocked I didn’t like it. I love Lauren Greenfield
, Larry Sultan
, and Tina Barney’s
photography, which seem to be the kinds of visual touchstones this film had in mind, but I didn’t feel much that was very real, here. The relationship ups and downs felt like contrived “scenes”. The film wants to say something about misplaced values and American capitalism eating itself, but ironically becomes capitalism eating itself in the portrayal of the people the film needed to focus on first as an entry-point to its message, instead of its message being an entry-point to portraits that feel half-baked and slanted to support its patronizing thesis. "Make money!
" is the group's anthem, and, I guess, America's anthem, but the thin relationships offered as a contrast to this pursuit don't have enough meat on them to matter. I didn't hate the movie, but was extremely disappointed. It felt like a missed opportunity to me.
A quote from a review by Jake Cole on Letterboxd that I agree with for the most part:
AH is stuffed with fleeting shots of insects—swarming over undisposed food, flailing ominously in a pool, the worm at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal—are thuddingly obvious metaphors for its youth, who are reasonably depicted as being trapped in a system where the only way to survive is to peddle wares that are obsolete, all for the benefit of an older exploiter who keeps most of the gains and pays back just enough to keep stringing her employees along.
Yet whatever empathy this might engender is undercut by the fact that Arnold introduces her characters via leering scans over their blemishes, their acne scars and gaunt skin and bad teeth. These are real people, and to be honest I wish we saw more people in movies who actually exist in the world outside coastal cities. But the way Arnold shoots them only calls attention to how unlike the professionals they are, how "daring" Arnold is to have cast them. That the film's basic themes of economic duress evaporate amid the endless close-ups and arty flourishes only further pulls focus on the repellent class tourism at the expense of simply letting her actors be their natural selves. It's a shame, as both the unconventional actors (including Heaven Knows What's Arielle Holmes, rendered astonishingly unbelievable by her character's stupid Star Wars quirk) and Shia Labeouf (thoroughly inhabiting a role that has no underlying substance to support his good work) are robbed by how self-serving Arnold's direction ultimately is.