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Cannes 2016: 'American Honey' + 'Uchenik'

Two films that won awards at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival reflect on young people's experiences, emotional and spiritual.

American Honey

Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane, Riley Keough
Rated: NR
Studio: A24
Year: 2016

Uchenik (The Student)

Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Cast: Petr Skvortsov, Aleksandr Gorchilin, Aleksandra Revenko, Victoria Isakova, Julia Aug, Svetlana Bragarnik, Anton Vasiliev, Irina Rudnitskaya
Rated: NR
Studio: Hype Film
Year: 2016

American Honey won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film festival. It also received an official Commendation from the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes on 21 May. Its star, newcomer Sasha Lane, teared up when she accepted the prize; her voice shook as she read the note of thanks from its British writer-director, Andrea Arnold.

The Ecumenical prize, set up by Christian filmmakers in 1973, honors spiritual works that reveal “mysterious depths of human beings”. The honor may seem unexpected for an unsentimental, loosely structured extended road movie about a band of hard-up itinerant teenagers selling magazine subscriptions, but the secular American Honey handles spirituality well. In fact, it presents spirituality more effectively than the Russian film Uchenik, an Un Certain Regard entry that tackles Christian faith and teenagers directly.

American Honey manages to present complicated questions without spending much of its long running time (two hours and 40 minutes) on a plot. It's set in an underground youth subculture emerging from a dying magazine industry. Arnold has some experience working with teenagers, demonstrated in her acclaimed 2009 film, Fish Tank. She's based the new movie on an investigative report in the New York Times. As it passes through highways, motels, shopping malls, truck stops, and suburbs, American Honey zooms in on emotional details, as the young people experience freedom, camaraderie, and casual cruelty.

Star (Lane), the crew’s strong-willed newbie, is introduced as she's feeling stuck in a small Oklahoma town, caring for two small siblings and her abusive stepfather. She finds a possible escape when she spots a gang of delinquents making havoc at K-Mart (a scene set under Rihanna’s “We Found Love”) The minute Star sets her eyes on their ringleader, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), her face lights up, revealing her longing for a different life.

Other kids in the film, played mostly by non-professional actors, stay in the background, horsing around in vans and motels to an infectious mix of hip-hop, R&B, and pop tunes. They are not as happy-go-lucky as they initially seem, as Star finds out once she joins them. Their boss, a scantily dressed cutthroat capitalist Krystal (Riley Keough), takes most of the profits and sets up ritualistic fistfights between the worst sellers. Krystal keeps Jake completely in her thrall, as her manager, errand boy, and lover.

As a spiritual answer to Krystal’s calculating mind, Star is an overwhelming force of nature, governed by her feelings rather than rationality. She is casually attuned to the animal world, befriending flowers, insects, birds, and a turtle. One morning, in a flash of magical realism that seems inspired by Grizzly Man (or perhaps Katie Jarvis' encounter with the horse in Fish Tank), a bear happens by, as if to say hello.

Star's interactions with people are less encouraging. Against her own financial self-interest, she finds herself sabotaging Jake’s improbable pitches to potential customers. As he's telling a customer he's trying to "pay for college", Star is distracted by a nubile 12-year-old who's staging her own pitch for Jake, a provocative dance. Unable to control her jealousy, Star lets loose a string of obscenities, at which point the client, a pious mother, concludes that Jake and Star have been sent by "the devil". Star comes back with her own scenario, observing, “Looks like the devil has got into your daughter,” as she storms out.

As compelling as such scenes may be, American Honey never gets too enamored with Star’s irrationality. Her penchant for going off script disturbs the crew’s hierarchy, shaking both Jake’s top seller status and Krystal’s hold over him, shattering Star's own hopes in the process. Sasha Lane's nuanced performance helps to make sense of Star's experience as they range between magical and the capitalist realities. Her face is constantly on camera, the film's use of a traditional Academy ratio format keeps our focus on Star’s perspective, filled, thanks to Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, with color and sunlight.

Uchenik (The Student)

Not nearly as subtle, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Uchenik is a secularist manifesto. Serebrianikov here adapts the German play Martyr, by Marius von Mayenburg, as well as his own stage version of that play: "(M)Uchenik” (the title a play on the words “martyr” as well as “student” or “disciple”). Like the play, Uchenik purports to show what happens when teenage rebellion meets religious fundamentalism.

Here these two usually opposite states mix only too well. High school student Veniamin (Petr Skvortsov) spouts quotes from the Bible in protest of evolution theory, sex education, and bikinis worn by girls during swimming class. His teachers, initially taken aback, soon begin to acquiesce to his demands, and even his atheist mother (Julia Aug) finds religion.

Soon enough, Veniamin acquires a disciple, a gay and disabled student named Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin, who played Veniamin on stage). As Veniamin’s faith turns from prudish to sinister, his only opponent, the attractive and articulate biology teacher Elena Lvovna (Victoria Isakova), stands to lose not only her job, but her life as well. No surprise, Veniamin becomes a menace even to his own disciple.

Veniamin engages in debates over the place of religion in society in raised voices and the sort of hifalutin rhetoric that's effective on stage. But on screen, their vigorous self-explanations, motivations, and circumstances are hard to swallow. Veniamin is clearly an exaggeration, his behaviors escalating as he trashes his room, imagines weird miracles, and is increasingly unable to deal with his own attraction to both girls and boys. Serebrennikov “footnotes” each of the boy's quotations from the Bible (through reference notes from the Holy Scripture flashed on screen as he speaks), a device that may be authorizing Veniamin’s interpretations or critiquing the source.

Uchenik eventually tells us little about the current state of high school education or religious orthodoxy in Russia. (It’s unlikely that bikinis would ever be allowed in the swimming pool, or that there would be a pool at an ordinary school in a provincial town like Kaliningrad where the filming took place.) Still, the film received the François Chalais Prize at Cannes this year, given to films that affirm the values of journalism. The film reminds us that, after last year's terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, European media continue to trade in fears of religious fundamentalism, here Christian as well as Muslim. Veniamin, as he nails a cross to a school wall to a blaring heavy-metal soundtrack, feeds and justifies such fears.

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