Tag Archives: a24

Lady Bird is a beautiful and true movie

The praise for Lady Bird deserves to start with a single detail. At two points during the movie, the song “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band plays as part of integral emotional moments. It’s a bonding for Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), something that gets them into the same emotional space. It’s not just what a perfect period detail that is, but what it says about the ethos of this movie.

Dave Matthews Band is not cool. Steven Hyden talks about this at length a little more (I’m pulling this idea from him but it stood out so much I had to repurpose), but Dave Matthews Band is not the kind of band that associates with having the kind of music taste that people in teen indie movies want to have, usually opting for the references points of what people in their 30s think is cool.

But it’s absolutely the kind of music a character like Lady Bird would be into in that year in that time. Lady Bird chooses to make sure its main character feels real rather than turning her into some icon of cool, to find a reality that grounds her rather than an attempt to impress the aesthetic.

With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig hasn’t necessarily blazed a new path, but simply made an exemplary version of a classic story by sticking to what feels real to her, by sticking to a rawer truth. The result ends up being a supremely confident debut, a warm film with a ton of life and a keen eye for those little human interactions.

Lady Bird follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), known as “Lady Bird” the name she gave to herself. It’s a coming of age story in Sacramento in Lady Bird’s senior year, 2002-03. Lady Bird wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento and to the East, to New York where she thinks culture is, and away from her overbearing mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

And that’s your premise. Gerwig wanted a picture in the mold of The 400 Blows or Boyhood and in movies like that, the premise by necessity needs to be thin. You need room to expand and breathe and find all the little tangents that life goes down. Coming-of-age is a genre that functions as collage, all the little bits pulling together into a larger snapshot.

It’s about the people, first and foremost. Lady Bird is really great about capturing the deep flaws within people who are fundamentally good, not ever letting it diminish who they are and still letting what shines about them shine, both through writing and performance.

Saoirse Ronan takes the lead here and continues to prove that she’s one of the best young Hollywood stars. Her Lady Bird performance ranges from deliberately affected, trying to be something she’s not (a side-splitting moment as she tries to slide up on Lucas Hedges’ Danny), to achingly raw, cutting through the problems of teenagedom and learning who you are with a single question. It’s a truly great performance, one I hope gets the proper attention come Awards time.

But just as good is the character on the page she’s given. Lady Bird is the kind of character only the best coming-of-age movies fine. She’s absolutely nuanced, an intelligent and thoughtful girl capable of being cutting and selfish. Navigating the line is difficult, but Lady Bird never strays into her being unlikable or unrealistically good. She’s a person, Gerwig has created someone who feels real and who helps us understand the navigation of a difficult time in life. It’s not that it’s not angst, but it’s the kind of angst people actually feel.

You could easily write similarly about everyone in this movie, there’s a deep bench of extraordinarily well-written characters performed by great actors. Lucas Hedges has an Oscar in his future, let me tell you.

The other one who deserves to be singled out is Laurie Metcalf, playing Lady Bird’s mother Marion. In a way, this is her story too. Marion is coming to grips with her child moving on and with the difficulty of realizing that you have no way to actually grapple with the person your child is becoming. Metcalf does such a wonderful job of letting everything bubble just under the surface, of layering all her lines with the subtext and giving a really knock-out performance.

It’s easiest to talk about all the dramatic elements here, all the realizations and the grappling and the good and bad people. But Lady Bird succeeds because it weaves a warm sense of humor into the whole proceedings. Always good-natured and always ebullient, think the contributions that Greta Gerwig made to the work of Noah Baumbach without his inherent darker cynicism. There’s a lot of great little moments and asides, those that make you smile and those that make you sink into your seat knowing the horrifying embarrassment from your own life that you can map onto the experience.

Look, I’m just saying that I also tried to feel smart by reading a copy of The People’s History of the United States in high school and I didn’t get that shit until last year. So I feel you Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

And hey, Gerwig’s handling of all this is helped by the fact that Lady Bird is an incredibly finely made picture. A film that is handsomely shot, well-edited, and absolutely drenched in great period detail (given that we can now make movies in periods I lived through).

I also just have to appreciate any movie honest about financial struggle. Not making it a point, not showing “one bad day poverty” as some deep lamentation or some noble endeavor. Just there, just a part of it, just an extra obstacle to pushing through the month. Having grown up that way, I really appreciate the way Lady Bird conveys it.

Lady Bird is the kind of film that makes you excited to see the next one from an artist. A film that’s absolutely lovely, wonderfully true, a film that feels so specific that everyone can relate.

Grade: A


A24 Double Feature: The Florida Project and The Killing of A Sacred Deer

The Florida Project

What do you do when a film whistles just past you?

The Florida Project, director Sean Baker’s tale of the disaffected and forgotten poor on the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, is by all means a work of raw and honest beauty, something wonderful and deeply humanist in a way that absolutely deserves to be as celebrated as I can imagine this film will be.

Yet I must confess that something didn’t quite hit right for me about this, didn’t take that extra step from being a great made film into be something truly special. The Florida Project is a wonderful movie, yes, but what’s missing?

It’s not the cast, for sure. It’s a largely unknown/non-professional cast minus a few familiar faces, most notably Willem Dafoe playing the manager of the motel our main characters live in.

The story revolves around children, Brooklynn Prince playing a young girl named Moonee is our star, and yet all of them feel only as affected as children do. The performances don’t have that child actor showiness, but they still retain the artificiality that children naturally have, trying to figure out words and posturings they don’t know how to use just yet. Prince is particularly extraordinary, the perfect eyes to a world of wonder.

It revolves around the adults who raise them too. Their actors are all equally extraordinary. Newcomer Bria Vinaite, playing Moonee’s mom, is a powerhouse standing right alongside Willem Dafoe, giving maybe his most likeable performance ever. These are people who feel real in their quiet desperation, in the need to just get by day by day.

All of that is thanks to the filmmaking of Sean Baker, quickly becoming one of our best filmmakers telling stories of the forgotten people. The Florida Project really is a gorgeous-looking film, finding the wonder that children must in these dirty and dilapidated urban places. There’s an honesty to it that never loses a belief in the humanity.

The film is funny and charming and really deeply affecting in how much it loves and believes in the misfits that occupy its frames. Baker knows what it means to actually care about these people like few filmmakers do, never coming down to the level of tourist.

I mean all these nice things, truly. But I want to throw back to the film Sean Baker did right before The Florida Project for a quick point of comparison.

Tangerine, his iPhone-shot film about two transgender prostitutes (Alexandra and Sin-dee) in LA during Christmas, has a moment at the very end of the film where Alexandra takes off her wig and offers it to Sin-dee while she’s cleaning her own. It’s a raw and very vulnerable and beautiful moment, something so specific and such a moment of human kindness that feels like it peels back the layer of film artifice and feels like you’re watching this real moment of kindness.

The Florida Project never really has that. There’s a similarly honest feeling to the whole film, but never the moment that really digs down to be honest and raw. And it leaves the whole film feeling as though it tells an honest story in an artificial way. Never finding that moment where it can get real. Perhaps that’s where it just barely misses my heart.

Grade: B+

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It’s rare for any year to yield a film as divisive and distancing and engrossing and fascinating and sickening as mother! It’s even rarer for a film to yield two films that you walk out of imagining that there’s a very real chance 95% of the audience hated it. But that’s 2017 for you.

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer is certainly not as jaw-droppingly audacious as Darren Aronofsky’s middle-finger masterpiece, it’s something just as difficult and insane to grapple with, something mythological and terrifying and confusing.

It’s hard to quite grasp what happens. Colin Farrell is Steven, a successful doctor married to Anna (Nicole Kidman), an equally successful doctor, with two children. Steven has also befriended a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan). The two have a past that seems to revolve around the death of Martin’s father as Steven operated on him.

Martin seems to blame Steven for it, and for not marrying his mother (Alicia Silverstone) and giving him a family, and chooses to take his revenge. Steven must kill one of his family or they will all succumb to a mysterious illness that may or may not be caused by Martin. It’s unclear.

An off-putting enough premise, but filtered through the Yorgos Lanthimos (director of The Lobster) lens it becomes something truly bizarre. The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems to eschew human belief and action totally, turning them into living embodiment of the avatars of narrative. Lanthimos characters are bizarre and stiff, like a robot pretending to be human, and it makes an off-putting story into something bizarre and hypnotic.

It helps that Lanthimos has such an incredible grasp and control of what he wants to do that it keeps all that from spiraling out of control. That bizarre detachment of his character is his whole world, something perfect and pristine in arrangement and design, terrifying in its coldness and threatened by somebody who is all willingness to tear the perfection down.

Farrell and Kidman are great in this film, no surprise. Kidman is having a banner year and Farrell is having a late-career renaissance, Lanthimos’ ability to pull really reserved and mannered and complex characters out of him contributing to that. But the real surprise is Keoghan, playing perhaps the most terrifying villain of the year. He somehow manages to make his very presence unnerving, yet its hard to understand the true nature of his evil. He is something twisted and unknowable, all the scary for what we imagine he must be thinking as what is revealed.

Lanthimos has created something uneasy, something so pitch black that terror and comedy feel intertwined in the sheer ambiguous insanity of a work like this. He leaves no questions answered and seems to revel in making his viewer actively uncomfortable. A slightly-dragging second act notwithstanding, Lanthimos manages to keep such thrall over this bizarre world that you don’t mind how little he does to solve it, you suspect that was never the point.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is perhaps one of the most deeply unsettling things you’ll see this year (besides the aforementioned mother!). Its actual value is certainly going to be evaluated on a personal basis but undeniable is that Lanthimos swings for the fences to create something truly dark, truly disturbing, and truly worth watching.

Grade: A

Obsession and Class from Coast to Coast: Good Time and Ingrid Goes West

In case any of you are worried, this isn’t a thinkpiece connecting these two movies. I know nothing about New York or LA as I’ve spent my entire life in the South and have spent a grand total of 5 days in both cities combined. I just wanted a “smart” way to connect two movies that I’ve seen and wanted to talk about because the content gods demand it.

Without further adieu…

Good Time

Good Time is less a movie than an adrenaline shot straight into the bloodstream. The Safdie Brothers have crafted a breathless descent into the underworld built out of tension and neon underlined by pulsing synth and captured with a camera that can’t seem to calm down.

It’s the story of a day and a night. A botched bank robbery lands Constantine Nikas (Robert Pattinson) in hot water as his mentally handicapped brother Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) is put in jail. The money Constantine got is basically useless (thanks to a dye pack), so he has to find 10,000 dollars in a night to get his brother bailed out and back under his care.

Good Time is the kind of propulsive and brutal thriller that only works like it does because it has a human heart beating at its core. This is an unfliching film, undoubtedly. It’s a grimy underbelly, an urban center that’s sprawling and unromantic, a poor side of New York that you don’t really see in films more often concerned with the artists and the wealthy of the city.

Yet, this is a movie that has an undeniable empathy for the people just trying to get along, just making something out of whatever they can find. Constantine is a criminal and a destructive person, ruining things for basically everyone he touches. But there’s no malice, he doesn’t carry a gun, everything feels like an animal lashing out for survival. And at the core, there’s a care, wanting his brother to be okay and healthy in the way that only he thinks is right.

That’s the animating impulse of Good Time, seeing what happens when fundamentally decent people are put into circumstances that make them into criminals and bad people. What survival really does take.

That animating impulse is also at the core of a career-best performance for leading man Robert Pattinson. His Constantine is constant, nervous energy, barreling forward constantly through every space, controlling and trying to control the situation in the hopes that he can finally pull his life together. Far from his normal reserve, Pattinson is all twitch, following along with the propulsive energy of the film and occupying every bit with breathless abandon. His final shot is a small masterpiece.

Credit must also be given to Benny Safdie, who takes on a tricky role (one that perhaps should go to an actual disabled actor) and does it with far more grace and sensitivity than anyone could expect. A man who just wants to live his life and do his best, who wants someone to care, Safdie pulls out a phenomenally reserved performance balanced against Pattinson’s constant motion.

It’s a film that balances those ideas. Moments of silence followed by moments of violence, all lit by neon. There’s not a blacklight or tube that the Safdie and Cinematographer Sean Price Williams don’t love and it gives the film an eerie alien glow, the feeling of looking into a world that isn’t your own. The score by composer Oneohtrix Point Never contributes, a beautiful and deafening synth that overwhelms the senses. This is a movie that patently refuses to back off you until the bitter end.

Outside of its final shots, the movie has trouble sticking the landing and has issues pulling its meaning. There’s also a thinkpiece to be had on its sterotype-based women characters. Good Time‘s never-stop, never-let-up, never-surrender imagery makes it hard to let that sink to deep in while you’re watching.

Grade: A-

Ingrid Goes West

Like if The Social Network was a cringe comedy instead of a sickeningly prophetic drama (that and Silicon Valley and you get all the problems with the tech industry octopus), Ingrid Goes West basically is one of the few movies to talk about “kids and their technology these days” without feeling technophobic, without feeling outdated already, but actually managing to dig under the surface of the place that public social media exhibition has taken in our lives.

After the death of her mother, an incident at the wedding of a friend/acquaintance/probably total stranger, and a stay in a mental hospital, Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) decides to make a change and move out West to Los Angeles, California! Of course, it’s to follow and become best friends with Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram influencer, so it’s not all necessarily better.

Ingrid Goes West is something of a cringe drama. There’s plenty of dry, sharp comedy, but it’s not so much playing the cringe for comedy. This isn’t necessarily something like The Office. The cringe is revealing, the discomfort is about the people living through it. It’s like pulling your fingernails, it’s designed to make you talk.

Aubrey Plaza has never had a role that, while being slightly out of her wheelhouse, seemed more perfect for her. Rather than playing someone who doesn’t give a fuck, Ingrid gives entirely too many fucks. She’s desperate for approval and there’s this underlying sinister note to basically everything Plaza does that makes her a great villain and an even better broken person.

Plaza owns every bit of this film, scary and deeply relatable and making a frustratingly undynamic character feel like she’s going through the gamut, but by no means is she the only strong performance. Olsen is pitch-perfect casting as Taylor Sloane and she does a great job with the material given. O’Shea Jackson Jr. playing Batman-obsessed Dan, her landlord and confusing crush, is pitch-perfect, is playing the one truly decent human being in the film and projecting every ounce of that in a bonafide star turn.

There’s a lot to admire here, a strong and critical look at social media without indulging in technophobia or kids these days-ism is rare enough. I just wish director/writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith might have pulled a little more out of the material.

The raw materials are great and well-crafted, but it never quite feels pulled into a cohesive whole. The story goes in and implies a lot of different directions, but they never really end up going anywhere. Ingrid is incredibly well-explored and Dan is given plenty of nuance, but Taylor ends up one note for most of the movie, really underplaying Olsen’s skill. There’s an inherent frustration to a movie where no one learns, but it feels difficult to find the coherent ideology underlying everything.

Grade: B+


It Comes At Night asks what will scare us the most come the End of the World

It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about movies about the Final Days in terms of how “they reveal the real monster/virus/nuclear holocaust to be man,” especially after The Walking Dead repeatedly beat the idea into the ground with a barbed-wire baseball bat over the course of 7 steadily more interminable seasons.

Yet still, I feel like it’s worth bringing up when discussing director Trey Edward Shults’ new film from A24, It Comes At Night. Let it not be because I am a walking cliche, but because I cannot think of any film in quite some time that so embodies that ethos. Not only in the fact that there is no monster (which is sure to irritate many an unsuspecting theatergoer), but for the fact that it has such an uncompromisingly bleak view of what we will do when the chips come down, and the terror that the family unit can wreak.

Set sometime after a plague has devastated humanity, a family – father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) hidden away in a remote cabin in the woods buries their infected grandfather. One night, a man (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house, seeking supplies from a house he says he believed to be uninhabited (if you believe him).

Paul takes the man captive and then lets the man, Will, bring his family, Kim (Riley Keough) and Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), back to their house to survive together. But being trapped in a desperate scenario makes for darker impulses.

It Comes At Night is almost certainly not the movie the marketing is selling or even that the title is selling. Implied in the images of desiccated men with blackened eyes and ominous doors and shadowy woods is that there is some monster lurking and an “IT” that comes at night, a zombie or a vampire or something that can be defeated to beat back the darkness.

The groans and moans I heard exiting the theater likely ties into the precise lack of any of that. It Comes At Night is ultimately more deeply unsettling than frightening, its scares eliciting gut-wrenching rather than adrenaline-raising.

But based on Shults’ previous film Krisha, that should be no surprise. Krisha was something of a horror film in this vein, a creeping dread set in around when its lead would eventually fail her family.

Ultimately, It Comes At Night is in the same vein. A film of family horror, where the shading of the relationships is the animating force, slowly pushing the dynamics to their breaking point and seeing what’s left after the devastation. Where its trust and the lack thereof is what destroys everyone.

There’s something more fully formed in Shults’ nihilism here. In fact, in general, It Comes At Night is impressive for seeing the massive leaps forward Shults has taken in the things that animate him as a filmmaker. That nihilism is at the core, a fundamental distrust in the nature of humanity and his belief that people will ultimately let each other down, is fully formed here. Your mileage may vary as to whether or not that’s a good thing, but that is the impulse that electrifies It Comes At Night, a sort of sighing resignation that we will ultimately eat each other and maybe we deserve it.

It Comes At Night has also pushed forward from a filmmaking perspective. Krisha felt like an excessive ape of his mentor Terrence Malick, It Comes At Night alters that free-floating camera into something more meditative and focused. It maintains the ethereal beauty and the glide, but it’s absolutely willing to lock and linger now, putting emphasis on stares and glances and the stoic faces.

Shults’ filmmaking is the painting here, his writing keeping a tight and twisty narrative that tends towards ambiguity (occasionally to the film’s detriment) but being largely serviceable. Perhaps the biggest inconsistency here is acting.

Edgerton is great, even if he’s basically doing the same performance he does every time. Ejogo is great, but she doesn’t get much to do, same goes for Keough. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is truly great, given the most complex character and absolutely knocking out of the park. Christopher Abbott is…serviceable. Not actively bad, but seems just kind of lost in a character that’s more about hiding things than revealing anything.

But It Comes At Night’s successes far far outweigh those failures. It’s a portrait of the end, a dark and nihilistic twist on the idea that during the Apocalypse, we will be more dangerous to ourselves than anyone or anything else.

Grade: B+

If you want to be there for the future of film, see Moonlight

As a critic, my job isn’t necessarily to recommend. My job is to discuss and contextualize and hope that whatever that takes the shape of pushes any reader towards a fuller understanding of film and to push themselves with this art the same way I do. I’m not necessarily endorsing or denouncing, though that’s going to happen just through speaking positively or negatively. I leave what the reader does up to them.

Except this time. If you’re reading this, go see Moonlight. Seriously. You, by the nature of the people I know, are most likely reading this within fairly short travel distance of a theater showing this film. If you care about guiding the hand of Hollywood towards making films from unique voices or featuring diverse faces and stories, then get out there and support this one. If you care about film as a medium and want to see something that pushes boundaries and does something vital and alive and staggering, then get out there and support this one. Hell, if you just need a good cry, then get out there and see this one.

For those of you who haven’t already left, fine, you need a little more convincing. Then let’s talk.

Writer/Director Barry Jenkins brings us Moonlight, a story of self-discovery and identity as a black gay man in Miami. It follows a man named Chiron through three periods of his life.

First, as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), a young boy bullied for his shyness and his size. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is an emotionally abusive addict. His only friend is a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner). A drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), along with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), takes Little under his wing and tries to give him some lesson about who he could be.

Next, as Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a gawky and awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. Bullied and isolated, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remains his only friend. His home life has fallen further apart as his mother slides further into addiction.

Finally, as “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), looking very different from the man we once knew. Musclebound with grills, he’s a dealer in Atlanta, trying to leave the person of his youth behind. A call from Kevin (Andre Holland) reconnects him with the life he once knew.

Finding words for Moonlight is a struggle. It’s such a vital and alive piece of work, one that is about the smallest gestures and the accidents of being human. It’s an experience that reminds me how much film exists in the smallest motions, in the juxtapositions of images and sounds. It’s incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime work.

I struggle to talk about it because it’s still a film I’m trying to pick apart, trying to understand what made it what it was, why I was an emotional wreck in the back of a theater.

Of course, as much credit as possible is due to writer/director Jenkins. In a just world, this is an announcement for the next great auteur, a filmmaker of singular voice and unifying purpose. From the opening shot, a slow track through a neighborhood following Ali’s Juan, there’s a certain reverence to the world, a languorous and painterly way that Jenkins moves his camera through.

Truly, this is a poetic work. It’s evoking a sense, a feeling, trying to grasp what it’s like to exist in multiple worlds and not feel like you belong in either. Moonlight is the feeling of trying to understand who you are and only grasping it piece by piece, year after year. Of never feeling quite whole. Jenkins has created something enormously evocative and deeply intimate, understandable through all lenses.

Understandable through all lenses, but refracted through a single one. This is a film about the black experience, about the queer experience. It’s specific about that, about the cultures those create and what it’s like to grow up as both. Again, it all comes back to Moonlight’s intimacy, that it makes you so much feel your connection with it, that it pulls you in and has you live beside it.

It’s the work of a very small ensemble of actors as well, all doing absolutely amazing things. Harris and Ali are doing incredible work here, both feeling like forces of nature, pulling Chiron along to a path he had so little control over. The work of the actors playing Kevin are all extraordinary, but none moreso than Holland, who does remarkably complex work as the adult Kevin who pulls Chiron back to Miami.

But this is a film about Chiron, told through him. The three actors who play him are all remarkable in their own way. Hibbert gives Chiron such reservation, the placid surface hiding turmoil underneath, holding his silence in just the right way to suggest so much. Sanders gives Chiron such damage, understanding the pain that his conflict brings him and how much the little joys that he gets to have bring him. Rhodes gives Chiron everything, turning in a staggering performance that builds on the work the other two do and giving him the last shading, understanding what has fueled Chiron to become who he has and what he will choose to be.

What every one of these actors knows, and what Jenkins understands most of all, is how much our interactions are in the looks and the gestures and the smallest thing. Every inch of this film, every moment is loaded with meaning and decision, every move motivated, every action has purpose. Every song choice adds richer texture, even the slightest shift in focus keeps us exactly where we need to be as an audience. It’s rare to find a film so deep in its detail.

This is a film about love and life. Rebuilding and devastating in equal measure, Moonlight is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of film. See this movie. If you do nothing else I’ve advised, see this movie. This is an important work and a work that is so well worth your time.

Grade: A+

In American Honey, the kids are gonna try to figure it out

American Honey earns its title more than any other that has so deigned to take that adjective.

When you call a movie “American X,” you have decided to make a larger comment on the society surrounding it, whether you choose to understand you’ve done so or not. There’s a certain weight to that decision, a certain heft to your commentary. Even the most harmless moment is uniquely and distinctly of “America,” whatever that is for you.

Andrea Arnold, the writer and director of this film, is not American. Yet she has made a decision to show us what America looks like to her, through the eyes of the underclass. This is a road movie, yet unlike many road movies, it is not a journey for one person. I mean, yeah, it is. The needs of narrative cinema demand that we have someone to hook into and American Honey has Star (Sasha Lane).

Yet, the journey is ill-defined and the goalposts few and far between. Early in the film, she makes the decision to leave the toxic family unit shoved on her by a mother who didn’t care and a father who took a different purpose for his daughter. She’s drawn along by Jake (Shia LeBeouf), a rat-tailed, slicker-n’-hell young man who is part of a troupe of traveling magazine salesfolk.

She joins them on a road trip through America, selling an ideal of themselves and what they offer (sometimes it’s to help the church, sometimes it’s a way to go off to college) to both the rich and the poor. These kids have nothing but each other and the promise of a little cash passed to them by Crystal (Riley Keough), their controlling boss.

I make it sound like there’s more narrative structure that there is, giving this thing an idea that it has a plot, a place it might go. It doesn’t, and I realized slowly over the course that I wasn’t going to see the beginning of Star’s story and I was certainly not going to be there for the end.

Arnold isn’t interested in that. Arnold wants to give us a piece, to capture in her 1.37:1 frame some idea of what America looks like for the youth below the surface. To capture the joy and the hope and the fear and the meaninglessness of the world for a group of Americans who now feel outside of society.

In some ways, American Honey is the film Malick lost sight of sometime ago. A human portrait of a sun-baked Midwest. Arnold’s characters are another part of the landscape as she drifts her camera through the world and lets it be captured for a moment. Sure, to a large degree, her images are gorgeous, the same naturalistic wonder that Malick is still capable of, without Malick’s current tendency to lose it in himself. But it’s not such a pulled back portrait.

In some ways, American Honey is a jukebox musical. Music is the lifeblood of this film, constantly pulsing in the background, rather than blaring over the top. Characters experience it on the radio and in stores. They know it and they sing along with it and it scores the moments of their lives, without them knowing it. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” may just be playing in a grocery store, but it becomes indicative of the moment that Star changed her life, and its reprise marks the same.

In some ways, American Honey is an issues picture. It’s a capture of American poverty from a foreign perspective, but without the condescension or the “Woe is them” fawning that tends to come with these stories. It’s the facts. It’s real faces showing what it means to live day to day. I’ve seen the faces before, they’re very real. Arnold understands poverty as an extension of an America that’s let people down, and gives them a chance to reclaim a future, or at least a poverty of their own making and their own design.

Is it optimistic? Not necessarily. The film suggests a certain acceptance of the way things are. But at least if they’re going to be that way, there’s some good to be done in that system.

Arnold’s also fortunate enough in her tale of the Way We Live Now to have two actors at its core who embody a certain self-reflective, devil-may-care youth. Sasha Lane, who plays Star, is brand new (this is her first film), but she already displays an extraordinary confidence with her character work. The looseness works in her favor, her natural charisma and screen presence shines.

Shia LeBeouf, is however, not so new. In all his art stunts and our parodies, we forget that LeBeouf can act, and American Honey stands to be his best performance. His chemistry with Lane is extraordinary and his ability to embody cockiness without ever allowing the nuance to leave the performance is a rare one. I know fun can be made, especially with that ridiculous rat tail, but LaBeouf is doing really complex work here, and that should be recognized.

As universal as American Honey is as a title, it won’t be a universal portrait. It’s a 3-hour slice of life about people who go nowhere and learn nothing. There’s a reason I’m a critic, not a marketeer. I can’t sell that.

I can simply state that more than any film I’ve seen in some time, American Honey understands what it feels like to be young and poor and trying to be alive. It’s gorgeous and vibrant and those who understand will feel, to quote Star, “like fucking America.”

Grade: A

Swiss Army Man finds the heart of humanity in vulgarity

Every year, there’s one movie that touches me like few others ever have and no other film that year does. A film that induces a reaction that can only be called something close to religious ecstasy, a flashing neon sign from the heavens of why I do what I do and love what I love.

Once it was a romance between a man and his operating system, one of the most poignant meditations on love and isolation. Once it was a thrilling tale of rebellion and hope in a post-apocalyptic world gone mad.

This time, it’s a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe. That’s right, Harry Potter) saving a man, Hank (Paul Dano), stranded alone on an island.

I’m not fucking with you. Really.

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