Fantastic realism: how Ken Loach and Andrea Arnold create 21st century fairy tales

New films American Honey and I, Daniel Blake show society’s “left behind” with grit, wit and a touch of the absurd.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman\'s Morning Call email.

Social realism and absurdist fantasy, the dominant styles of British cinema, are not as incompatible as they might seem. In fact, there are many instances in which they are mutually beneficial: think of Malcolm McDowell opening fire on the quad at Cheltenham College in If . . .; the lovers kissing as rubbish falls around them in slow motion in Sid and Nancy; the entirety of It Happened Here, the frighteningly convincing 1964 drama imagining Britain under Nazi occupation; not to mention everything that Monty Python ever did. But it is when Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting dives into an excrement-spattered toilet and finds a shimmering fairy-tale ocean beneath that we see the clearest metaphor for the path available to British film-makers from grimy realism to ­transformative fantasy.

No one in the past twenty years has embodied this journey better than Andrea Arnold, a former children’s television presenter from Dartford, Kent. Her scuzzy-poetic sensibility is at its most unruly in American Honey, her fourth film (after Red Road, Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) and her first to be shot outside Britain.

There is an inherent savagery to Arnold’s world, expressed most clearly in the equality that she insists on between human beings and animals, but she is always alert to the lyricism of the most desperate lives. Her characters struggle on the breadline, but she sees beauty amid the crumbs. Or, to quote the Rihanna song used at a crucial moment in American Honey, she finds “love in a hopeless place”. Perhaps that is why she sticks faithfully to the 4:3 ratio, which reduces the screen almost to a square. It’s all the more miraculous to find so much energy squeezed into that cramped and inauspicious frame.

Then again, even an IMAX screen would struggle to contain the fiery 18-year-old Star, played by Sasha Lane, taking her first role. American Honey makes several references to The Wizard of Oz (ruby slippers, a trip to Kansas) but to anyone wondering where the tornado is, the answer is simple: it’s Star. She swaps a hardscrabble life rifling through dumpsters in Oklahoma for one no less unstable but a sight more thrilling. A ragtag group of outsiders selling magazines door to door across the United States passes through her town and Star signs up to join them. These lost boys and girls, a hormonal mass of piercings, tattoos and midriffs, provide the background to the love triangle between Star, the hard-edged ­gangmaster Krystal (Riley Keough) and the cocky, rat-tailed driver Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who catches Star’s eye when she spots him dancing on a supermarket checkout counter.

The irony of hawking magazines in the Internet Age is strongly felt, and none of these characters believes for a moment that anyone wants what they are selling. As the film develops its capitalist critique, it becomes apparent that the system is beyond repair. The endless drunken, druggy nights have made the kids docile. Krystal, strutting about in her Confederate-flag bikini, is the only one making any serious money from the sales. She is capitalism personified, though Keough, who happens to be Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, is too lively a performer to be reduced to a symbol, and Arnold is too smart a director to try.

Every corner of American Honey is crammed with colour, vitality and pulsing music. Though it is overlong at nearly three hours, the level of immersion in Star’s adventures wouldn’t have been as intense with a shorter film. A fair amount of repetition is inevitable. If you’ve seen one symbolically caged bird, harnessed horse or liberated insect, you’ve seen them all. Arnold’s control of tone, however, is highly impressive, and there are suspenseful sequences, such as the encounter between Star and three ageing cowboys, in which the film feels as if it’s inching into the unknown.

At other times, American Honey resorts too readily to tipping the scales. A Christian mother who announces that Star has the devil inside her is one of a number of older female characters with a hint of the monstrous about them. The camera, it seems, only has eyes for spring chickens.

The movie’s biggest flaw is its lack of interest in how the characters meet their sales targets. It is a source of frustration that, with two brief exceptions, we don’t see the group closing any sales. How these people get by is a mystery, especially when they look so off-puttingly coarse to many of their well-heeled potential clients. Star especially is a disaster on the doorstep, with all the social skills of a grenade. Though there is a tense moment when Jake gets called out by a customer for a lie he has told, the situation is cut short before we see how he wriggles out of it. I would sacrifice 20 minutes of sumptuous sunset shots for a bit more belief in the on-screen world. American Honey has nailed the imaginative side of the British film-making formula. Where it stints is on the sort of details that would have rooted it in reality. It’s a dynamic movie, but it isn’t tied to anything; it’s like a ship that has drifted free from its moorings.

Meanwhile, I, Daniel Blake, the new film by Ken Loach, gets the balance between the gritty and the absurdist almost exactly right, which is quite a surprise, because this director has a strong track record in the former but not much experience in the latter. The picture, a deserved winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, concerns a widowed joiner in his late fifties (played by Dave Johns) who has been told by his doctor not to work after suffering a heart attack. His local Jobcentre Plus in Newcastle, however, has decided that he is tickety-boo. Daniel wants to appeal but he can’t even be granted that right until the decision-maker phones to inform him officially of the decision. Until that call comes, he must prove that he is looking for work, even though he is too ill to take any jobs he is offered, or else his benefits will be cut.

Paul Laverty’s script has an acute ear for the government jargon used to disguise acts of institutional malice, but he and Loach hold their indignation in check until the last possible moment so that the film has a pressure-cooker element to it. Gentle fade-outs between shots, like visual shrugs or sighs, show the passing of time as Daniel learns how to use a computer at his local ­library. Told that the site has frozen, he wonders if he should wait for it to defrost. Advised to use the mouse, he drags it all over the screen. It’s the closest that Loach has ever got to the spirit of Jacques Tati.

Loach hasn’t lost his weakness for forcing dramatic conflict. A scene in which Daniel engineers a confrontation with a young mother (Hayley Squires) whom he has befriended could have been resolved with a discreet conversation rather than the soap-opera-style showdown it gets here. Yet this is Loach’s strongest work in decades, partly because he allows black comedy and anger to feed one another.

The film is often very funny in a maddening way. The first words that we hear are from a so-called health-care professional, who tells Daniel: “This won’t take long.” She couldn’t be more wrong, and the line is a neat example of the movie’s brand of gallows humour – or welfare wit. Later, when Daniel is kept on hold during a phone call about his benefits, it is surely no coincidence that he has to wait for an hour and 48 minutes, which is only marginally longer than the film we are watching.

The greatest virtue of I, Daniel Blake is its patience in confronting painstakingly the incremental humiliations visited on the neediest in society. The bureaucratic pomposity is worthy of a Monty Python sketch – except that, by the end, no one is laughing.

“American Honey” (15) is out now

“I, Daniel Blake” (15) opens on 21 October

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge

Free trial CSS