The latest feature from writer/director Andrea Arnold (‘Fish Tank‘, ‘Wuthering Heights’) shows an artist growing in her personal style and ambition, but is also the textbook definition of “too much of a good thing.” When Arnold’s rambling, improvisational production style meshes with her vision of lost American youth, ‘American Honey’ can be an electrifying observational experience. But at nearly three hours, it can also take a bit too long to ride down the long road to nowhere.
The film’s best non-professional actor find is Sasha Lane, playing an 18-year-old girl named Star who’s growing tired of dumpster diving to feed her siblings in an implied abusive home in small town Texas. Thankfully, salvation arrives in the form of Shia LaBeouf with a rattail and eyebrow ring. His character Jake is the leader of a band of similarly lost teens who roam America selling magazines by all manner of cons and emotional manipulation. Jake is the best (i.e. most manipulative) salesman of the bunch. The leader is Krystal (Riley Keough), a bikini-clad tyrant who likes making her lowest sellers fistfight for her affection. It’s mostly a fun experience, though, at least compared to the presumably broken homes all the teens came from. Arnold follows them in a road trip through the trailer homes, dirt roads, and typically unseen backwaters of America.
First things first, the film looks beautiful. Shooting in the cramped 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio, Arnold keeps her cameras tight on her characters, with the unique American vistas serving as picturesque deep focus backgrounds. Colors are bright and vibrant, due to both the blinding sun and the junkyard retro 1990s/2000s fashion and furniture throughout. Arnold’s wandering handheld cameras slowly tease out her world and characters with little dramatic structure. The young actors she found all benefit from the improvised production and come off as impressively naturalistic. For the most part, they just rap along to the radio, talk about “making that money,” drink, do drugs, and ramble on about boys and girls. It’s all kids’ stuff, just hitched onto the unique setting. It’s easy to get lost in, until things get repetitive, which happens fast.
The closest thing to a plot comes through Star’s relationship with Jake. She’s in need of anything resembling love and/or attention, while he’s a walking mixture of smarm and charm whose true feelings and motivations are never clear. Both actors dance around each other and their relationship is an intriguing mixture of toxicity and warmth. Of course, like everything else in the movie, it never really goes anywhere. The same can be said of Riley Keough’s Krystal, who’s bleakly hilarious as a strange mixture of Spring Break bunny, vicious businesswoman, and manipulative deadbeat taking advantage of children with few advantages. It’s a fascinating portrait and Keough is fantastic in the role, but the character always remains just slightly out of reach and forever unknowable.
The pleasures of ‘American Honey’ (and there are many) come more in the moments of this episodic odyssey. Scenes (particularly one involving an equally threatening and friendly Texas BBQ) play out like polished short films, but the rambling structure of Arnold’s unique road movie provides little motivation, catharsis or conclusion. It’s all about the ride. Maybe if she’d cut the movie down to something that played as a brief snapshot leaving tantalized viewers desperately wanting more, it could have been great. However, at this length, the lack of payoff and endless repetition becomes frustrating.
Too many wonderful sequences tickle the eye and brain along the way for the movie to be considered a failure. It’s just unfortunate that the movie never clicks into place in a manner that gives everything purpose. However, at least Arnold’s latest experiment hits enough strong notes that she could sharpen these techniques into something truly special next time.