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Why American Honey director Andrea Arnold is one of today's greatest filmmakers

You might not have heard of her, so here’s a crash course in Arnold’s specific, prize-winning style.

Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf star in ‘American Honey’
Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf star in American Honey.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Andrea Arnold has directed a revenge story, a coming-of-age movie, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, a road movie, and three episodes of Transparent. One of her short films, about a single mother, won an Oscar in 2003. All four of her feature films won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. She’s one of the most highly acclaimed directors working today — no small feat in a field still dominated by men.

And yet, Arnold is still widely unknown to most moviegoers. That’s worth changing.

Like most of its predecessors, Arnold’s first film shot in the US, American Honey (which hit theaters last Friday), is a story of a young woman whom others have tried to break figuring out how to use every tool at her disposal — her brains, her endurance, her sexuality — to shape the wreckage of her life into something workable.

Until American Honey, Arnold focused on her native Britain, both its past and present. Now she’s trained her camera on the United States — as she did in directing three episodes of Transparent (season two, episodes eight and 10, and season three, episode 10) — and discovered the same themes across the pond as well.

Heathcliffe and Cathy on the moors in Wuthering Heights.
Heathcliffe and Cathy on the moors in Wuthering Heights.

But in addition to her usual protagonist, there’s one other species you can always count on seeing in an Andrea Arnold movie: bugs.

The British director seems to harbor a great fondness for the invertebrate set, cutting away to a close-up of a moth here, a creepy-crawly there. Arnold’s films are marked by involvement with the natural world, but bugs are her favorite, and they show up between and during scenes to evoke moods and characters’ feelings. In 2003, she directed an episode of the British show Coming Up called “Bed Bugs,” and that year she also won her Oscar — for a short film called “Wasp.

But bugs are just one tool in Arnold’s stylistic arsenal. She also uses popular music, especially hip-hop, as part of set pieces that move the film’s plot along, and she likes to shoot in a 4:3 ratio (which looks nearly square on screen). She told Filmmaker that 4:3 is “a portrait frame. My films are generally from the point of view of one person … It gives them real respect and importance. It’s a very human frame, I think.”

The squareish framing is an unusual choice, particularly in a movie like American Honey, which crops out the expansive landscape — standard in a road movie — and makes us pay attention to the interactions between characters, to the quiet ways that power dynamics mix and shift between people in barely perceptible moments.

Katie Jarvis dances in Fish Tank.
Katie Jarvis dances in Fish Tank.

That works beautifully in American Honey, which stars newcomer Sasha Lane as Star, who escapes from an abusive home by joining a caravan of teenagers like herself who travel the country in a huge white van, selling magazine subscriptions. They’re led by Krystal (Riley Keough), a tough Texan girl with a fierce set of rules for her employees, and a rat-tailed right-hand man, Jake (Shia LaBeouf, who’s tremendous in the role — really!).

Arnold’s perspective might best be described as social realism, always interested in how societies both constrict and liberate their citizens — especially those who are vulnerable: the young, the poor, women, minorities.

Which brings us back to the bugs. Arnold often draws visual parallels between her characters and the insects in the environment around them. That’s no mistake, nor is it an act of disrespect. Far from it. Insects thrive in spite of being vulnerable to the larger world around them; Arnold’s insects are often struggling to break free of some environmental hazard. (In American Honey, Star helps one out.)

And just as insects have exoskeletons — which is to say, they wear their strongest parts on the outside — Arnold’s characters develop tough shells to protect them. They’re resilient, but they’re not angelic: Most of Arnold’s characters bare and use their stingers to fight back.

Want more? Here are five movies and a bonus TV episode that serve as introduction to Andrea Arnold.

“Wasp” (2003)

In Arnold’s Oscar-winning short film, Zoe (Natalie Press, who went on to star with Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love) is a single mother of four whose means are dwindling, and for whom life is deeply unsatisfying. By chance, she runs into an old boyfriend and agrees to go on a date with him, and asks her young children to stay outside the pub. Arnold shot the film in her hometown of Dartford. When she received the Oscar, she famously said, “I’d say that this is the dog’s bollocks.”

“Wasp” is available as an extra on the Criterion Fish Tank release, but you can watch a subtitled version on YouTube or above.

Red Road (2006)

For her debut feature, Arnold participated in an experiment hatched by a few filmmakers, including Lone Scherfig (An Education) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia), in which three first-time directors would make movies based on the same characters. Red Road was the first of these.

In Red Road, CCTV operator Jackie (Kate Dickie of The Witch) spots a man from her past (Tony Curran) on a surveillance camera. She becomes obsessed with him, tracking his movements and eventually deciding to confront him. It’s a dark, deeply unsettling thriller.

Red Road is available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Fish Tank (2009)

Fifteen-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives with her mother and younger sister in Essex, and she hates most everything except hip-hop dancing, which she practices in an abandoned flat every day. Then one day her mother brings home a new boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender). The film came out the same year as Fassbender’s role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and helped propel him to stardom, but it’s Jarvis’s performance that’s most mesmerizing, as a girl caught between youthful naiveté and desires she doesn’t yet understand.

Fish Tank is streaming on Netflix.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

Arnold is hardly the first filmmaker to adapt Emily Brontë’s classic novel, but she’s the first to envision Heathcliff as black, which casts the whole story in a different light. (It’s also her only film with a male protagonist.) This is a wild, cold, blistering retelling of the tale, in which orphaned Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) is treated poorly by Hindley, the son of the family that took him in, while sustaining a difficult passion for the daughter, Cathy (Shannon Beer). Years after being thrown out, he returns (now played by James Howson) to the manor to find Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) married. And revenge is not sweet.

Wuthering Heights is available for digital rental and on DVD and Blu-Ray.

American Honey (2016)

Arnold found her American Honey lead, Sasha Lane, while the soon-to-be star was on spring break in Miami. It was serendipitous: Lane is a mesmerizing on-screen presence — like Mia in Fish Tank, she is a girl caught between maturity and childhood, teetering on the precipice and desperate for a way into her future.

Arnold coupled Lane with red-hot Riley Keough (who recently starred in the first season of The Girlfriend Experience), a charismatic and magnetic Shia LaBeouf, and a motley crew of young people mostly cast the same way as Lane was. The result is something like magic, less a tribute to the open road than to the feelings of danger and passion and pain and exhilaration it gives, no matter where you started.

American Honey opened in theaters on September 30, 2016.