Wednesday 24 October 2018

Movie Review: American Honey (2016)

A social drama, American Honey is a road trip through the eyes of lost and damaged youth. The film has a lyrical quality, but also wallows for too long in one emotional place.

In a nondescript Oklahoma suburb, teenager Star (Sasha Lane) looks after two children who are not her own, and tolerates sexual abuse from their white trash father. A chance encounter with a group of teenagers packed into a van, including the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), prompts Star to suddenly change her life: she deposits the kids back with their parents and joins Jake and the team.

The group is a magazine crew, teenagers who travel from city to city duping customers into buying subscriptions to magazines they don't need. Their leader is the business-minded Krystal (Riley Keough), while Jake is the group's best-seller and also Krystal's lover. But Star and Jake are attracted to each other, and as she is exposed to his much less than honest selling tactics, she cannot help falling for him, triggering Krystal's seething rage.

Inspired by a New York Times article about magazine crews and directed and written by Andrea Arnold, American Honey is more of an experience than a film. While the handheld camerawork, boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio and improvised dialogue evoke a low-budget documentary style, the plot does not have much to offer, and the characters are who they are essentially from start to finish.

Rather than dazzle with incident, the film aims to immerse in feelings, and to some degree Arnold succeeds. This is fly-over America as seen by listless youth happy to smoke, drink, get stoned, and spend untold hours squished into a van. Work consists of lying to people, and the nights are confined to downtrodden motel rooms. Compared to whatever it is they are running from, for these young people this is the good life.

Intriguing as this lifestyle is, Arnold eventually bumps up against the limits of the material, and does not help herself by prolonging the film to a mammoth 163 minutes. Despite a quite mesmerizing performance by newcomer Sasha Lane, only so many back-in-the-van scenes can pass by before they all start to meld into each other. Not helping matters is the utter disregard for any of the characters outside of Star, Jake and Krystal. Packing the van with about seven other teenagers (mostly non-professional actors) and then proceeding to ignore them is a puzzling construct.

Star's journey of self-discovery frequently saves the day. In a succession of episodes shadowing Jake or on her own with prospective magazine customers, she confronts, challenges and often breaks her limits in search of money, sex, love and some sense of definition. Her individual trip nests within the overall city to city trek, providing the often sad perspective of a young woman adopted by a surrogate family of equally lost souls and taking on the world with no guidance.

Arnold leaves out any judgments or questions about how it has all come to this. These youth have no past they are willing to speak of. More worryingly, on this evidence their future prospects appear just as dim, despite the naive dreams they whisper to each other in the dark of night.

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