Review: American Honey
PLOT: A young woman (Sasha Lane) leaves her abusive home and joins-up with a motley crew selling magazine subscriptions across the Midwest. She soon falls under the spell of their charismatic manager, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), as they travel from town-to-town partying and eking out a meager living.
REVIEW: AMERICAN HONEY is another thoroughly compelling offering from director Andrea Arnold. Shooting for the first time out of her native UK, Arnold infuses the film with a distinct, outsider’s gaze into the American Heartland. While that perspective is rarely flattering, AMERICAN HONEY is perhaps one of the few truly sympathetic films made about a class of people often mocked by mainstream culture.
Adopting her usual 1:33:1 aspect ratio (meaning it’s window-boxed unless you happen to be watching on a 4:3 display), AMERICAN HONEY feels like a modern-take on the type of roving youth culture movies made by the great European directors in the late-sixties/early-seventies, like Michelangelo Antonioni’s ZABRIKSIE POINT, only less naïve. While that generation was mobilized by politics and civil unrest, the kids here don’t want to do anything but party. Selling subscriptions, a product which literally could not be more useless in our tablet-dominated culture, feels like a nod to how much of a gang of misfits they are. Even their defacto leader, the uncommonly beautiful Krystal (Riley Keough) seems totally ill at odds with the world around her, depending on constant sexual gratification for a sense of self-worth.
While Sacha Lane’s young heroine, Star, initially seems doomed, with her suffering her dirt-bag father’s gropes and being forced to be the caretaker to her half-siblings (whose mom cusses her out when she dares to suggest she take responsibility for her own kids), once she’s recruited into this merry band she finally finds her place. While their acts are only half-a-step away from being criminal (with LaBeouf actually being one – pinching goods from homes and stealing a car), they’re mostly a good-hearted crew. Lane’s performance has the authenticity you can only get from a non-actor, with Arnold having reportedly cast her after spotting her sunbathing during spring break. Not one to milk scenes, she dominates the film and her chemistry with LaBeouf, who’s rarely been so naturalistic, is intense.
In addition to LaBeouf, Keough and Lane, America itself is a prominent character in the film, with her shooting in a documentary-esque fashion with many locals, save for the occasional appearance from character actors like Will Patton, as a temporary acquaintance of Lane’s. The music is especially important, with rap and pop providing a constant soundtrack as the go from town-to-town, with their initial flash mob to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” being especially evocative.
Despite the movie’s many admirable qualities, AMERICAN HONEY does have a few notable issues. For one, it goes on too long. A 165 minute running time is somewhat punishing for this kind of cinema verité approach, and had a half-hour been shaved-off, it would probably find more of an audience. It’s also difficult to swallow scenes where LaBeouf and Lane are able to talk themselves into gated communities without even minor trouble, as people are so prejudiced their job, likely, would be even harder than it’s shown to be in the film. It’s also a drag that the rest of the crew is so underdeveloped, with us only learning minor things about the others, like that Arielle Holmes’s Pagan is obsessed with Darth Vader and that another of them is keen on full frontal nudity and fighting. Given how long it is, some character beats would have been nice – although one can’t fault Arnold for following her muse, who’s clearly Lane.
Even if it’s long, rambling and sometimes inconsistent, AMERICAN HONEY is also frequently beautiful and defiantly unique. I’ll give it this much - I haven’t seen anything like it since my film school days and if you’re looking for something really …different…this is that movie.