AMERICAN HONEY * * 1 / 2
Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Arielle Holmes and Will Patton. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold.
From Wim Wenders to Rattle And Hum, there’s a long tradition of European artists coming over here to make grandiloquent statements about “what America means” or some such sweeping sociological what-have-you. (Credit Lars Von Trier for at least being efficient enough to do this while staying at home.) Most of these projects tend to be full of shit, but I find it fascinating to see familiar places through unfamiliar eyes.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a honey alright, straddled uncomfortably between the mythic and the particular until what started out as exhilarating eventually becomes exhausting. The movie can hardly support its lofty ambitions or justify an absurd running time (162 minutes!) but certain scenes have stuck with me in the weeks since watching it.
Director Arnold is best known for the lacerating cockney housing-project drama Fish Tank and a Wuthering Heights adaptation so searingly visceral I saw it drive half of a film festival audience to the exits. She’s got an affinity for underclass kids and works wonders with untrained actors. Newcomer Sasha Lane is the best reason to see American Honey, starring as a troubled twenty-year-old clinging to the lower rungs of Oklahoma’s broken economic ladder. She falls in with a band of young misfits who travel around the country in a van, going door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions under the tutelage of Shia LaBeouf’s pierced and ponytailed Artful Dodger.
Obviously it’s impossible to make a living selling magazine subscriptions in an age when one can barely make a living writing for them, but we’ll let the movie run with the central metaphor that these young unfortunates are really selling themselves, performing sob stories and playing on the guilt of their well-heeled patrons. LaBeouf –reminding us here that he can be an effective actor when not otherwise engaged as the most obnoxious celebrity in the world– is terrific when tutoring the wonderfully raw Lane on their house calls. Sparks fly between the two, which presents a problem as he’s a kept boy-toy for Riley Keough’s Krystal, the Fagin of this Oliver Twist riff.
Decked out in a stars-and-bars bikini, she’s presumably the embodiment of cut-throat capitalism (played by Elvis’ granddaughter for a concentrated iconographic booster shot) crushing the dreams of our central couple. Or something like that. American Honey falters at the big-picture stuff – such gaseous proclamations as “I feel like I’m fucking America!” or whenever the largely improvised dialogue veers into labored speeches about dreams – but it excels at intimate connections.
The exuberant sing-a-longs and unspoken exchanges linger in the mind, as does an incredible tension every now and again. These characters are so unloved, abandoned and untethered to society that there’s an unnerving threat running through half these scenes. I spent most of the movie with a nagging worry that any of them could be killed without consequence at any moment.
Arnold shoots the road trip panoramas in her beloved, boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, compressing the view to stress the smallness of these kids’ horizons. But the vistas aren’t the only things that start to feel cramped. After establishing the characters and the premise, American Honey has nowhere left to go. Entire scenes are repeated during the third hour, several of them more than once. Lane and LaBeouf break up and make up ad infinitum, the movie offering no new angles or development to their dilemma while some promising supporting characters (like a gawky sci-fi fan played by Heaven Knows What’s Arielle Holmes) recede into the scenery. Then everybody sings another damn song in the van again.
American Honey finally (mercifully) ends on a predictable note that could have been struck at least an hour earlier. It’s a road movie that winds up driving in circles.