Film

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
Website

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
Website

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.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Music

Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.

Music

Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.

Music

Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.

Music

The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.

Music

Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.

Film

The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.

Music

'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.

Music

Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.

Books

Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.

Music

South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.

Music

Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.

Music

'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.