American Honey has the whiff of sensationalism rather than the aroma of empathy. That’s a hard distinction to articulate, as my awkward metaphor suggests, yet it’s the best way I can capture my impression of the movie.
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights), the film follows a teenager named Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) who falls in with a crew of young vagabonds as they travel middle America scrounging out a living by conducting door-to-door magazine scams. Drinking and drugging when they’re not spinning sob stories to strangers, they’re a combination of Fagin’s pickpocketing orphans in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the hedonistic teens of Larry Clark’s Kids.
It’s telling that American Honey brought to mind something like Kids (as well as its Harmony Korine-headed stepchild, Spring Breakers) rather than, say, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, another portrait of young adults living dangerously on society’s edge. Van Sant’s camera huddled next to its characters (homeless teen hustlers working the Pacific Northwest), intimately attuned to their vulnerable humanity. Despite once again employing a boxy, 4:3 aspect ratio that closes in the screen, Arnold’s film feels removed—more amused by its characters’ antics than thoughtful about them. We see plenty of outrageousness—there is an indulgent bagginess to much of the movie—but we don’t really feel their hurt.
Arnold’s film feels removed—more amused by its characters’ antics than thoughtful about them.
Van Sant also had breakout performances from a young River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, whereas Arnold hands her nearly three-hour opus over to Lane, a novice who isn’t up to the task. She has a certain charisma as a found object, which is mostly how Arnold’s camera treats her, but is at a loss when asked to carry a scene. Frequently she gives the same moment conflicting emotions—not in a way that’s layered, but in a way that doesn’t make sense for the situation or character.
Shia LaBeouf, meanwhile, brings the film some much-needed energy as the guy who recruits Star in a Kmart parking lot. A romance between LaBeouf’s Jake and Star is supposed to lend the film an emotional hook, I suppose, but Lane isn’t enough of a presence to make that register.
Despite its grand, declarative title, American Honey doesn’t have many other ideas in play. In place of significance, the movie offers an extended scene of the kids singing along to the Lady Antebellum song from which the movie gets its name. Somewhere in here might be a compelling narrative about the gap between the haves and have-nots (I liked the sequence, near the end, where Star finds herself trying to sell magazines in the same sort of impoverished neighborhood from which she escaped), but even on that front the movie mostly takes broad swipes at easy targets: big-hatted cowboys cooking steaks on their hobby ranches; religious-minded McMansion wives oblivious to their dirty-dancing teen daughters. American Honey doesn’t ask any real questions or advance any challenging notions about either the interior lives of its characters or the indifferent society in which they find themselves. Any commentary is pretty much limited to sneering shots of American flags.