In the opening scene of American Honey we find Star (Sasha Lane) foraging in a roadside skip for food alongside two young children. Director Andrea Arnolds gives just enough in these early moments for audiences to form for themselves a picture of the horrors of Star’s home life. So, when offered a chance of escape with a bus of teenage magazine sellers bound for Kansas City, Star takes it almost unquestioningly.
Arnold’s use of no-name actors, most effectively with the debuting Lane, gives the film and its characters a realness unavailable elsewhere. The only recognisable faces are those of Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road), and the man, the meme: Shia LaBeouf. Keough is borderline toxic as the confederate bikini-clad queen of the magazine troupe, and Labeouf keeps his cannibalistic tendencies at bay long enough to deliver a capable performance as swaggering, rat-tailed “power salesman” Jake. Although his presence does rob the film of its realism somewhat, as his occasional dips into melodrama are at odds tonally with the surrounding scenes.
The film’s narrow aspect ratio and heavy colour saturation give each scene a warm, Instagram-esque effect, but the world Arnold’s lens captures is far from rosy; a raw snapshot of American poverty. For Arnold’s characters this poverty isn’t the source of any moral nobility, nor does it drive her characters to any overt acts of rebellion. Instead it lingers in every shot, ready to catch any underachievers jettisoned from the party bus. When taking into account the film’s everpresent destitution, Star’s self-destructive actions and the nihilism of the van’s occupants becomes all the more understandable with each progressing scene. American Honey shows a generation fallen between the economic cracks. At once obsessed with the money and status boasted of in the film’s rap soundtrack and lacking it, or any chance of reaching it, entirely. Star seems the only one of the group with thoughts beyond the journey, and Jake’s response to her question on his aspirations – “you mean like future dreams” – is as dopey as it is tragic.
The group’s journey reaches a dozen points in which to call it quits, but Andrea’s camera lingers on, dragging the film out to almost 3 hours. When it does finally reach a conclusion it’s as loose as the film before it, leaving American Honey unfocused, unstructured and overlong. Yet for all this Arnold’s film remains a vivid and at times tender glimpse of a world little-seen, fixated on the diamonds in the rough.
[Ronan Duff – @DonanRuff]