Films that run past the 120-minute mark are always risky propositions, mostly because the average moviegoer attention span typically begins to falter beyond the 90-minute sweet spot. There are no two ways around it: to sustain a level of audience engagement for the long haul, a films needs to be really, really darn good, if not great.
In 2009, English filmmaker Andrea Arnold brought us Fish Tank, two of the most captivating hours of film we saw that year, and with her latest effort, American Honey, she asks for a whopping two hours and 42 minutes of our time. It’s a big commitment, but like Fish Tank, it’s worth every second.
The story, about a traveling clan of gleefully raucous teenagers who sell magazines door to door to maintain their alternative lifestyle, lends itself perfectly to the long format. It’s a modern, bittersweet odyssey centered on Star (Sasha Lane), a lost girl eager to fill the hole in her heart and find fulfillment somewhere far, far away from her abusive, broken home life. She becomes our guide into the wild world of the nomadic salesmen when she gets recruited by the group’s fearless, seductive top seller, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), in a muggy Walmart parking lot. He’s sporting an old, ill-fitting dress shirt, an unsightly eyebrow ring, and sports a curious ponytail that hangs past his shoulders; he’s not exactly Hollywood heartthrob material, but Star is drawn to his livewire energy like a moth to a flame because, well, she’s weird too.
There’s something beautiful about the fact that Arnold’s first feature is set in the United States. It shines a spotlight on marginalized, vagabond youths, a category of Americans underrepresented in films and TV despite being as much a part of the fabric of the country as any other group or community. There’s nothing saccharine or uncomplicated about Star, Jake, and the rest of the roving teens, most of whom have mental and emotional scars from the lives they left behind, and Arnold gives us ample time to sink into their life on the road and dig into the nooks and crannies of their troubled psyches. The dusty towns they visit are full of similarly busted souls, and as Star and the gang put miles and miles behind them, what emerges is a fascinating, haunting pastiche of middle America’s forsaken corners and cul-de-sacs.
It’s impossible to disentangle the alt-Americana imagery from Star’s coming-of-age story, which is largely fueled by her explosive relationship with Jake. He seems to be involved in a sort of quasi-relationship with the group’s viper-like leader, Krystal (a hard-nosed Riley Keough), though he’s more than happy to accept Star’s aggressive advances. The romance is a bumpy one, with both parties prone to violent outbursts (LaBeouf is legitimately scary with a loaded firearm in his hand), and their feelings for each other intensify until it’s almost unbearable. Some of the duo’s small-town adventures are more interesting than others – an interlude involving a trio of wealthy, aging cowboys is wacky fun, while a visit with a bible-thumping suburban mom feels contrived — but Lane and LaBeouf are so electric together that their scenes have an almost addictive quality to them.
What makes the young leads’ onscreen relationship so special is the experience discrepancy between them. Lane is a first-timer, discovered by chance on a beach in Miami by Arnold. As Star, she’s tender but strong, compassionate but guarded, and more than a match for LaBeouf’s wildman energy. We only get a handful of moments each with the rest of the teens in the group, but they all feel startlingly real. Watching Star and Jake work out their issues for nearly three hours would be completely overwhelming, and the rest of the group’s rowdy shenanigans often provide a welcome, hilarious respite when the emotions between the couple run too high.
The boldness of Arnold’s sweeping visual style and her uncanny command of mood and tone make American Honey a must-watch, particularly in a sleepy year for films like 2016. It’ll also be interesting to see whether or not Arnold has just discovered the next big indie starlet in the hypnotic, naturally gifted Lane.