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american honey (2016) dir – andrea arnold

english director andrea arnolds fourth feature is just as bold and striking as her previous work (red road, fish tank, wuthering heights); a thrillingly alive road odyssey/character study of discarded american youth; vibrant, poetic, erotic, tragic funny, scary, indulgent, messy, ugly and beautiful in equal measure.

american honey is ostensibly the story of star (debutante Sasha Lane), a teenage girl trapped in a deadend home life somewhere on the fringes of working class america. she stumbles upon a ragtag group of lost boys and girls led by the charismatic, ponytailed Jake (Shia La Boeuf) whom she locks eyes with and offers her the chance to escape her impoverished, abusive existence and join his motley crew in their battered volkswagen selling magazine subscriptions to rich neighbourhoods for cash. she seizes the opportunity and throws herself into a headlong journey of self discovery that is both epic and intimate in scope.

arnold and cinematographer robbie ryan shoot the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, normally reserved for television and still photography. this serves to emphasize Star’s point of view. we see the world through this defiant young woman’s eyes as she  chooses to experience it. immediate, raw, surreal and fascinating with convincing performances from a cast of first-timers and professionals, particularly Lane and La Boeuf whose intense chemistry powers the film forward, sideways and every other way as it careens to a perfect (in)conclusion.

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moonlight (2016) dir – barry jenkins

what is it about tales of suppressed homosexual desire that make them so powerful ?  from death in venice to brokeback mountain, an overwhelming sense of longing, loss and tragedy pervades and makes the standard issue love against the odds story seem almost superficial. perhaps because these stories – including Barry Jenkins Moonlight -take place within worlds where social parameters have deemed the idea of same-sex relationships and couplings to be forbidden, unlawful even, transgressions against well established societal norms, dynamics and identities.

moonlight examines both racial and sexual boundaries in a sensitive, subtle and daring manner focusing on three ages within the life of its gay african-american protagonist Chiron.

in act 1, chiron (played by alex hibbert) is a near mute, introspective kid growing up in a crime ridden Miami neighborhood Liberty, without a father and living with an abusive drug addict mother portrayed by brit thesp naomie harris. hiding from a group of local bullies, he is taken in by local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend teresa (singer janelle monae) as a surrogate son.

the second act, chiron (ashton sanders) is a teenager in high school and shares a sexual awakening with his childhood friend Kevin but continues to endure victimization and emotional abuse due to his sensitive nature.

by act three chiron (trevante rhodes) is now a a grown adult, a drug dealer in Atlanta with an imposing physique; his homosexuality is still an unspoken secret, his desires, his true self remaining hidden until he receives an out of the blue phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland) who wants to reunite.

a wonderfully evocative study of self realisation, jenkins film is a rare one that deals with being both african american and queer and transcends the idea of queer cinema by making a character study that feels specific and personal whilst exhibiting a tender humanism that is universal.

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manchester by the sea (2016) dir-kenneth lonergan

and number three is another specific, intimate american drama that feels authentic, unforced set in Massachussetts from acclaimed playwright kenneth lonergan. like moonlight, the film has recently been garnered with multiple oscar nominations and deservedly so.

the quiet power of the piece is in the details and in the editing scheme, flashing backwards and forwards in the life of Casey Affecks’ Lee without drawing attention to itself, painting a picture of an ordinary life lived and unlived, before and after a certain incident which i won’t reveal but is one that changes everything so to speak and manchester by the sea – like moonlight -deals with forgiveness. lee is someone who has shut down a part of himself in order to survive, in order to deal with everyday life.

Lee cannot forgive himself it seems but for what? we are left in the dark for most of the film and afflecks subdued, inscrutable characterisation draws us in just as he is reluctantly drawn back to Manchester to look after his errant nephew after the passing of his older brother. when his secret is revealed, there is no phony melodrama of the Hollywood variety to rachet up the emotions .

what we have is a empathetic study of ordinary people with flaws, good intentions trying to deal with what life throws at them the best they can but how some of us, no matter how much we try and others try to reach in and pierce that veil of self-loathing, can never forgive ourselves. this is a real heartbreaker, wonderfully acted, clear-eyed, tender, funny and sad.