Andrea Arnold’s American Honey starts strong, with us first meeting the protagonist of the film, Star (Sasha Lane), dumpster diving in search of food for two children. Distracted by a loud mini-van full of other teenagers and twenty-somethings, she heads into a K-Mart under the pretence of getting some Mountain Dew for the kids. Inside she watches as Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and the rest of the youngsters – who we later learn are travelling the country selling magazine subscriptions – dance to Rhianna. She’s transfixed, particularly by the rat-tail sporting Jake. Andrea Arnold – with cinematographer Robbie Ryan shooting the entire film in tight 1.37:1 framing – smartly keeps us inside Star’s head and locked in with her gaze. We see Jake and the crew through her eyes and we can palpably feel how intoxicated she is.
What follows this set-up is a road trip movie, as Star abandons her life to go on the road with this group, who are led by the fierce Krystal (Riley Keough). But this is where the entire film falls apart, and fails to live up to the hints at something interesting which we see in the first few scenes.
Star is in search of something, although she is perhaps not entirely clear what. And so we watch as she drifts along with this group, becoming part of their tight collective, and exploring various different cross sections of America. We see Star following random impulses, getting angry at Jake, becoming more and more enamoured with Jake, and singing in the car with the rest of the crew.
There is a lot of singing. A lot. It accounts for a large proportion of the runtime, as the group play tunes while they drive around. Arnold films them from inside the car, as they sing and rap along, always keeping the framing tight. But there’s never any actual real intimacy to these scenes. There’s no sense that what we are seeing is meaningful, whether thematically or emotionally, as it was in something like Girlhood – which also uses Rhianna, to great effect – or even Almost Famous. And the repetition really hurts the scenes even more, with them becoming more and more tiresome as the film drags on. When the group finally put on the song American Honey by Lady Antebellum and they sing along, smiling at each other, it not only feels trite and an unearned emotional beat – despite the time spent getting there – it also just feels like more of the same.
Were these characters more fleshed out and multi-dimensional then we could be emotionally invested in them, but Arnold seems content to just paint them in such a broad simplistic manner. One character, for instance, has only one defining characteristic: he gets his penis out a lot. He’s on screen for probably over an hour in total, but that’s basically all we learn about him. And this disservice isn’t relegated to just the supporting cast, Krystal is a pretty significant character in the film, with a number of dialogue heavy scenes, but we learn nothing about her apart from the fact that she is nasty and controlling.
Arnold clearly seemed to have her heart in the right place with American Honey, as there are a lot of allusions to the class divide and poverty in America, but we never feel these thematic ideas or see them explored, they just kind of hang there. And again, they are conveyed in such a simplistic, one dimensional manner that they are unconvincing as well as unengaging.
The one bright, burning positive in American Honey though is Sasha Lane who, in her first role, breathes life into her character and holds the camera in an extraordinary way. She conveys wide-eyed naivety with a mixture of a bold, fierce fire in a remarkable fashion and she could have a very interesting future ahead of her. As the film reaches it’s climax and Star goes through an almost ritualistic final act, Arnold makes a final stretch for profundity, but it’s just that: a stretch, and it immediately snaps, like chewing gum pulled too far.
A somewhat noble endeavour perhaps, but ultimately American Honey is a real disappointment.