American Honey (2016)

Review #1,430

Director:  Andrea Arnold
Cast:  Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Plot:  A teenage girl with nothing to lose joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Jury Prize & Prize of the Ecumenical Jury - Special Mention (Cannes).  Nom. for 1 BAFTA - Outstanding British Film
Runtime:  163min
Rating:  R21 for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse-all involving teens
International Sales:  Protagonist Pictures

“So you're a southern girl.  A real American honey like me.  You know that song?”

Feeling every bit as lengthy as its 160-plus minute runtime, American Honey is Andrea Arnold’s most ambitious film yet.  It also completes Arnold’s hat-trick of Jury Prize wins at Cannes (Red Brick (2006) and Fish Tank (2009) were the other two).  Operating as a road movie as well as an ensemble film, American Honey takes the well-worn heels that is the coming-of-age narrative to create a sprawling, uninhibited ode of youth, love and life. 

Starring Sasha Lane in her acting debut as Star, a young woman who leaves her younger siblings behind for a new life as part of a traveling crew selling fake magazine subscriptions, the film tells a loosely-structured tale with minimal plotting and scant development of character arcs in service of a larger, impressionistic, sometimes ethereal, experience—one marked by a spirit of self-agency and self-discovery.

Arnold's filmmaking style is restless and energetic, backed by the hard beats and intense rhythms of (largely) rap music, something that she pulled off with aplomb, albeit with less indulgence, in Fish Tank, one of the great British films of the 21st century.  In American Honey, we essentially get a traveling troupe of wannabe iTunes-loving scammers, led by a sexy, no-nonsense fox lady, exploring Americana in its various states of economic strata. 

We bear witness to the filthy rich and the pitiful poor.  Two scenes of empathy struck me: one involves Star’s visit to a low-income family ruined by drugs, a scenario she only knows too well; the other is a simple conversation between her and a well-to-do truck driver, whose daughter whom he dotes on has grown up and married out.  I wished there were more of such scenes about the human condition.

But the seemingly never-ending traveling, scamming and partying by the youths become tiresome and repetitive after a while.  There’s little sense of purposeful direction, with feelings of listlessness in between bouts of wake-me-up energy.  Shia LeBeouf plays Jake, the ‘love interest' of Star.  They share moments of physical and sexual intimacy, but their relationship isn't interesting inasmuch as their characters don’t evolve through the film, but are satisfied being part of the whirlwind. 

There’s a story or two waiting to pop out, but that never materializes, and hence the film doesn’t quite hook us consistently.  Arnold’s work is admirable from a cinematic standpoint—there’s much to savour in both sight and sound—but she has made better films.    

Verdict:  There’s both a sense of energy and listlessness to the filmmaking, with a story or two waiting to pop out, but that never materializes through the course of this sprawling, ambitious road movie.


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