Genre: Drama, Road Movie
American Honey follows a few days in the life of Star (first time actress Sasha Lane) as she runs away from her abusive father’s home, leaving her young siblings with her mother, to travel across America with a crew of misfits. They sell magazine subscriptions by day, party by night. Star disagrees with the way the sellers do things – fabricating tragic backstories in order to coax subscriptions off people – and finds her own way of doing it, using her kind spirit to charm folk into helping her instead. She quickly forms a bond with the wild and cocky Jake (Shia LeBeouf) but things are made a bit more complicated when she discovers he’s “whipped” by the leader of the group, Krystal (Riley Keough).
The film is shot gorgeously. The camera dips in and out of focus over long takes with a low depth of field, creating an intense, personal feel. Constantly moving, it captures the spirit of being on the road. By blanking out the sides of your vision and limiting it to what you’d only really be focusing on in a tense moment, the square-ish 4:3 aspect ratio strengthens the sense of intimacy. The whole thing is actually very visceral. You feel like you’re with them there and then.
Sasha Lane’s naturalistic performance as the conscious and caring Star is impressive. It’s amazing how director Andrea Arnold has managed to pull a performance like this out of a first time actress that she street cast. And her character is the perfect companion to Jake, who overacts, who is lively and confident and rash. Their connection is great and actually becomes one of the film’s most cliché and conventional aspects. For a large part, American Honey becomes a love story – which makes it all the more unrewarding when it is scarcely concluded.
It’s perfectly possible to pull off a film with no real plot and set over a few days and make it work – Everybody Wants Some (2016) to take a recent example, La Dolce Vita (1960) as a classic. But it’s important to have a satisfying ending. Where Everybody Wants Some cuts us off with a sort of visual punchline, American Honey does nothing but fizzle out. It will likely leave you wanting more. Though despite the 165 minute running time, I felt short-changed rather than satisfied. I felt like it was missing the ending.
It’s strange that there has been so much enthusiasm about a film that is so indulgent. It is by no means gratuitous, but is a thrill ride through a world chiefed by partying, drinking and smoking and enjoyed by wild youth, most of which come from impoverished backgrounds and some of which clearly have mental problems. It’s interesting to see the characters the gang meet on their trip but ultimately these encounters say little about American society. Andrea doesn’t present any solutions, nor does she even attack the system. She simply shows us the struggle of an underrepresented group of American society and says – ‘hey, look at this.’ It makes you wonder what Andrea Arnold, who comes from a background of social realist British cinema is doing making an American road trip film anyway.
I really enjoyed being a part of the journey that American Honey took me on, while it lasted. But when I think back to it, it just makes me feel a little sick in my stomach.