“American Honey” is the personification of that weird kid back in school who would write obscure “deep” poetry and then shun you for not “getting it.” The talent involved in this film is quite evident, but the point of the film couldn’t be more unfocused.
Star (Sasha Lane) is a teenager living with her two younger siblings and her mother’s abusive ex. They exist far below the poverty line, scavenging for food in dumpsters like animals. While trying to hitchhike a quick ride home, she comes across a van full of rowdy teenagers, lead by Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake and Star immediately share a connection, and he invites her to join them as they travel state to state selling magazine subscriptions. With nothing to lose, Star ditches her siblings with their white trash mother and catches a ride with the rowdy and rambunctious “Mag Crew.”
While Jake may seem to be the leader of the crew, he himself appears to be the beaten puppy dog of Krystal (Riley Keough), the true team leader. She makes the rules, collects the cash, punishes those who fall short, and scouts out locations in her white Mustang convertible. The rest of the nearly three-hour film tracks Star as she follows these misfits across a few states, questioning her position in life, and fantasizing about future dreams.
The performances in “American Honey” are astounding, but there’s a good chance it’s because most of the actors aren’t really actors at all. Director Andrea Arnold cast most of the roles from unknowns, reportedly approaching random teens she would see on the street during her own cross country trip. Since a large part of the script was improvised, it’s likely everyone was just being themselves.
Much has been made of the film’s soundtrack, and while it’s impressive such a small production could have secured so many popular songs, the repetitive scenes of the Crew singing over their favorite tracks gets exhausting. The first few times it’s a great representation of these kids free spirit and how they can extract happiness from the smallest things. But a person can only listen to so much bad karaoke before considering harakiri, especially if it serves no purpose except padding a film’s runtime.
It’s obvious what Andrea Arnold had in mind when creating this. For her first American film, she wanted to offer up her interpretation of the extreme financial classes that exist within our country and the impact it plays on some of our youth. But this falls a bit flat when the upper-class characters are silly caricatures and the underprivileged class are destructive hooligans. Arnold’s also apparently obsessed with using animals as metaphors for these children but seem incapable of “closing the loop” on these metaphors. Yes, these lost boys(and girls) identify with wildlife. Yes, they feel trapped and sometimes like they are being led off to the slaughter by the richer social class. But it’s all so muddled. Are these kids “untamed” and “free”? What does it mean, metaphorically, when they steal someone else’s dog? (When they can barely take care of themselves!) Many times, the random animals in the film seem far more civilized than the characters we are supposed to care about. This leads into the next big problem. There is not a single likable person in this movie. (Except for Pagan (Arielle Holmes), a girl who is obsessed with Darth Vader and has lightsaber battles while sleepwalking.) Jake and Star are each incredibly selfish and their emotional immaturity and ignorance prevents them from any number of redeeming choices.
For nearly three hours this movie meanders on. After the first 15 minutes, there is no real story arc and there is certainly no character arcs to speak of. When the film comes to an end, nothing has changed. None of the characters came to any epiphanies or made any choices to change their lives. They apparently haven’t learned anything either. If the credits had rolled abruptly halfway through the film, it wouldn’t have mattered. The only tangible difference would have been 90 fewer minutes wasted from our lives.