American Honey (2016)

6 Nov

Director Andrea Arnold‘s latest film, the aptly titled American Honeyis a thoughtful coming-of-age drama told through the lens of an impoverished teenager named Star (Sasha Lane).

Star is an unemployed 18-year-old who spends her time wandering the streets of rural Oklahoma and looking for food with her two young children. It becomes immediately apparent from the film’s opening (which features her passing a whole chicken from the bottom of a dumpster into the hands of a toddler) that Star is a societal outcast; a misfit who has become so accustomed to life on the streets that any chance of gaining employment or schooling is non-existent.

She soon crosses paths with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), an impulsive bohemian salesman who makes his living by finding recruits to help him go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions. Jake, who becomes infatuated by Star, presents to her an opportunity to leave the street life behind in favor of joining a vagabond group of young adults who are traveling throughout the southern states. “It’s a business opportunity…” he confidently says, “We explore America, we go door-to-door, we party.”

What starts out as a story of Star shedding her childhood and coming to terms with her adult independance gradually becomes a cinematic display of millennial counterculture. Andrea Arnold’s restrained direction yields a “fly on the wall” approach to the story, meticulously capturing every realistic detail of the lifestyle these young adults lead in their search of the American dream.  We get a diverse cross-section of rural American life through American Honey; in one scene we see Jake and Star make a door pitch in an affluent white evangelical neighborhood – in another we are witnesses to the hyper-masculinized working class culture of Dakota oil fields. Each moment feels so geuinely nuanced and rich; Arnold presents the narrative to us casually through the earnest eyes of Star that most of the film feels less like a movie and more like a documentary of sorts. One doesn’t get a sense that these are actors on a stage (even with a mega-movie franchise star like LaBeouf who fits his role like a glove) so much as these are real people living their lives out on screen.

The end result is a film that gradually immerses you in its details and becomes more hypnotic with its imagery as it progresses. However, at a running time of over 160 minutes, the film’s aesthetic wears a bit thin, (there are only so many shots of the group listening to hip-hop and smoking pot in the back of a 15-passenger van that you can get away with) and some scenes tend to drag more than others. Still, the effects of watching American Honey linger on after the credits roll, and Arnold does a great job of avoiding unnecessary melodrama and creating an authentically vivid filmic experience.

Bottom Line: Though it desperately needs a shorter edit, American Honey is an immersive and detailed look at the effects of contemporary American poverty and one that feels both refreshingly ordinary and beautifully cinematic.

Rating: 7/10

Film recipe: White Girl + Gummo + Spring Breakers

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