Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. United Kingdom/USA, 2016. Parts and Labor, British Film Institute, Film4, ManDown Pictures, Maven Pictures, Protagonist Pictures, Pulse Films. Screenplay by Andrea Arnold. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Produced by Thomas Benski, Lars Knudsen, Lucas Ochoa, Pouya Shahbazian, Jay Van Hoy, Alice Weinberg. Music by Earworm Music. Production Design by Kelly McGehee. Costume Design by Alex Bovaird. Film Editing by Joe Bini. Cannes Film Festival Awards 2016. Gotham Awards 2016. Independent Spirit Awards 2016. Toronto International Film Festival 2016.
Andrea Arnold ventures across the ocean for her first exploration of American culture, her focus on the less privileged keeping in line with her previous films about under-served British citizens (Fish Tank) and those enduring the grimy bleakness of working-class Glasgow (Red Road...I don’t want to talk about Wuthering Heights). Charismatic newcomer Sasha Lane plays an eighteen year-old girl who walks away from her rough home life when she meets a group of lively youngsters in a parking lot and one of them (Shia LaBeouf) offers to have her join their merry band. They’re not actually shiftless wanderers, they make money going to towns and selling magazine subscriptions door to door, an industry that currently (and very controversially) exists in reality as an opportunity to help kids get off drugs and/or the streets and make an honest living. How honest the living actually is is questionable consider these charming ragtags are managed by a hard-as-nailpolish boss (Riley Keough, the best performance in the film) who takes 80% of their earnings and demands profits at the end of every day, with very little sympathy to those who don’t bring them in. Lane has a great deal of difficulty adapting to the bravado that is necessary in salesmanship, her attempts to get good at it prompting her to put herself in more than a few hairy situations that will make you cringe for surprisingly long periods of time. Arnold is not afraid to show the dirtiest details of either her characters or the geography of the southwest that these kids cover, intelligently spelling out the morality that develops in the chasm between the wealthy and the very poor by this completely dishonest occupation: the sellers don’t care about you having access to magazines, and the purchaser usually buys out of pity or the hope that the seller will go away. Fish Tank concerned itself more with the progress of holding on to a dream while experiencing coming-of-age realizations under difficult circumstances, but when she gets to America Arnold tells us that this is a place where all circumstances are eventually channeled into capitalist effort. She does not want to offend her hosts, though, so the worst possibilities of the situations she puts Lane in are carefully and, often suspiciously, avoided: she can only get into so many scuzzy mens’ cars before we realize there’s some narrative finessing going on (LeBoeuf sure can walk fast to that fancy house that the dirty old cowboys take Lane to). The characters are also for the most part realistic portrayals that at times veer towards the archetype (the rich woman who is “just trying to be Christian” is wagging a finger right in our faces), but what is most difficult about this film is the protagonist herself. Among a group of people who have a surprisingly facile little society going on (there’s no infighting within the group of employees, even their fights are controlled games with no personal feelings attached), Lane’s Star lacks wisdom about life and, for most of the film’s nearly three hour running time, resists gaining any. Staying sympathetic to her poor choices and ambivalent reactions to the results of said choices gets a little tiresome, with her romantic subplot barely making up for this, and given the appeal of her co-stars it is a shame that Arnold did not spread the narrative attention around a little more to the other members of the crew.