Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
American Honey, the new film by Andrea Arnold, starts out fresh and vibrant and stays that way for about 45-minutes. Given that the film is over two and a half hours long, this is something of a problem.
The first film that the British director has made in the US, American Honey tries for sustained, spontaneous edginess and a mix of the epic and the intimate in its portrait of the hedonism and disaffection of contemporary American youth. But the movie is so repetitious and poorly modulated that it becomes not so much illuminating as gruelling.
Arnold has often explored the coming-of-age of young women in challenging circumstances in her work, and American Honey continues the theme. The protagonist here is Star (Sasha Lane), an 18-year-old Texan girl who’s eager to break away from her family commitments (which are unclearly rendered in the film) and strike out for something new. She finds an opportunity via Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the “top seller” in a group of young people who cross the country in a van, peddling magazine subscriptions door to door.
Eagerly joining up with this motley crew of itinerants, Star is initially seduced by their seemingly reckless and carefree lifestyle as they travel across the Midwest. But tensions gradually emerge within the group, particularly when Star falls in love with Jake, incurring the displeasure of the magazine crew’s tough boss, Krystal (Riley Keough).
American Honey was inspired by a New York Times article that Arnold read about real-life magazine crews, and the movie strives for a raw, loose, documentary tone throughout. “We’re exploring America”, Jake tells Star early on, and that’s what the film—all too self-consciously—is also trying to do. Arnold’s ambitions are hearteningly big. Through attention to this subculture, she’s making a movie about American capitalism, American haves and have nots, American freedom, and the American Dream.
At times, as when capturing a group of line dancers grooving to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”, Arnold gets the tone just right. It’s a shame, therefore, that the movie finally ends up feeling both counterfeit and derivative. Often it suggests an attempted merging of Terrence Malick and Larry Clark’s sensibilities, with familiar Americana signifiers—nature shots, motels and burger joints, endless dusty roads—juxtaposed with the sexual rough-housing of the crew, who roll into each town with music blasting and instructions from Krystal about how best to conduct themselves to make most sales.
The cinematography (by “restless” Robbie Ryan) is often striking, but the boxy ratio feels oppressive, and makes the film a chore to watch. Perhaps Arnold wants to convey the constriction underpinning the apparent freedom of this collective, which may explain why the film doesn’t always make as much as it might of the characters that the crew encounter on their travels; an encounter between Star and a kindly trucker, for example, too quickly turns into a Springsteen singalong.
The use of music is a further problem throughout the film, in fact. Arnold stuffs the movie with songs (mostly trap and country), heard diagetically to demonstrate how the crew define themselves and bond through singing and dancing. Yet the approach is ultimately reductive.
Jake’s introduction—a supermarket bop to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love”—is sensational, but when the song is featured again later its impact is muted. By the time the crew are crooning along to the Lady Antebellum track that gives the film its title, we’ve already been through several in-car sing-alongs too many. There’s the uneasy sense that Arnold is falling back on the songs to convey emotions and character details that she hasn’t sufficiently developed in her screenplay.
Where the director does score consistently is in her handling of the young actors. Lane makes a terrific film debut as Star and LaBeouf’s mixture of seductive charm and volatility is sometimes explosively effective. Yet the development of the central love triangle is as tacky as it is predictable and, though Riley Keough contributes a vivid performance, the role of Krystal (a ruthless capitalist and slutty seductress) is problematically conceived from the start.
Ultimately, American Honey feels both over-scaled and under-cooked, and comes close to being an American folly for Arnold. For all its surface energy and exuberance, the film is strangely tedious: an overly self-conscious road trip that runs out of steam long before it reaches its destination.