American Honey (2016)
Release Date: October 14th, 2016 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Andrea Arnold Actors: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Arielle Holmes, McCaul Lombardi, Verronikah Ezell, Isaiah Stone, Dakota Powers, Shawna Rae Moseley, Raymond Coalson
young girl digs through a garbage dumpster looking for food – accompanied by two small children. It’s a depressing scenario, made more tragic by the revelation that the children are not her own (they were handed to her by a far less concerned parent), and that they must all return to an untidy, unstocked little home where an abusive man lives. The girl is Star (Sasha Lane), and she’s desperate for an alternative to this prison of insignificance and poverty. Curiously, her desperation is also a source of self-respect and scruples, even when they occasionally contradict with her physical actions. So when she sees Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his gang behaving rambunctiously and cockily at a grocery store, Star is instantly enamored by the potential that their apparent freedom (and his inviting smile) might afford her. Spontaneously, she hops aboard his overstuffed van headed to Kansas City.
To the varying tunes of a presumably pricey soundtrack, “American Honey” follows Star as she’s taken under Jake’s wing to sell magazines door-to-door. The job is most likely a complete scam, though the assortment of runaways goes through the effort to save receipts with contact information to be given to Krystal (Riley Keough in a spectacularly cold role), the ringleader who arranges hotels to stay in and provides gas for the vehicles. With this simple premise, the film proceeds to chronicle the misadventures and the outright dangers that Star experiences, showing no concern for engaging the audience with purpose or conflict or resolutions. It’s a slice-of-life experiment with very little drama, showing the day-to-day activities of young people who have abandoned responsibilities, planning for the future, or even immediate goals of improving their situation.
While it may be a novel exercise in dispensing with traditional narrative structuring and storytelling, it takes a hefty 160 minutes to paint its portrayal of a rarely seen America. Though infrequently explored, it’s also somewhat grotesque, as the assemblage of wayward rebels don’t have regular access to typical hygienic facilities. Similarly, the look of – and actions in – the film attempt to capture a certain rugged realism that refuses to glamorize their brand of vagrancy, right down to impulsive sex scenes or instinctive roughhousing. For some, there might be an allure in the nearly anarchic independence of this lifestyle, but it’s also endowed with a layer of ugliness from the smoking and drinking and drugs. Plus, if all of the impromptu dancing, lip-syncing, and continual merrymaking were reduced to just what was necessary for establishing behaviors, the end result might have run for about 15 minutes. There’s scant substance beyond the repetition of listening to music and partying.
For a project that showcases exceptional autonomy, there are still specific rules that are somehow mandated but insufficiently enforced. Employees are to be unfalteringly punctual; they must dress for success (this is the most debatable, arbitrary clause); and girls and boys must remain in separate rooms. But, there’s a love triangle at play, which causes mild inconveniences to add to several encounters that could have turned horrific were this a more mean-spirited endeavor. “American Honey” possesses almost no conflicts, save for some moral quandaries that fail to generate a striking negativity that might prevent repeated conduct, leaving its scrutinization of a perpetual odyssey of carefree yet unfulfilling confrontations nothing like a cautionary tale or a traditional tragedy.
At one point, a random truck driver asks Star, “What’s your dream?” To this, she replies, “Nobody’s every asked me that before.” If “American Honey” intended to impart some degree of poignancy to its exhibition of a restless, never-ending cycle of mediocrity, the ambiguity of the symbolism (most recognizable with animals) and the lack of closure do it no favors. Comparably, the handheld camerawork and the lingering on minuscule details (like arms, legs, tattoos, cigarettes, clothing, wildlife, and even mud puddles) only weaken the sequences of emotional, human interactions. There’s an undeniable hypnotism or poeticism to the dreamlike revelry that seems to segue every new destination or stopover, but the point of this study is disappointingly equivocal and the running time unduly stretched.
– Mike Massie