‘American Honey’ is a tricky movie because most of its greatest strengths double down as its biggest weaknesses. The American debut from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (‘Fish Tank‘) is a rambling road odyssey populated primarily by non-actors (plus Shia LeBeouf). The movie is defined more by fleeting moments of atmosphere and character than by plot or structure. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. However, with Arnold’s film tipping in around two hours and forty minutes, the rambling can be a bit much and it never really develops into more than the sum of its parts.
Thankfully, those parts are quite strong. Sasha Lane occupies the center of most scenes as Star, a lost teen with a troubled home life filled with suggestions of abuse, evidence of poverty, and nowhere to go. Salvation arrives in the form of Shia LaBeouf with a ridiculous rattail dancing it up in a Walmart. He’s part of a gang of similarly lost teens who travel around the country selling magazine subscriptions. Since that business isn’t exactly booming, they depend on guilt and manipulation to get their sales, all watched over by an oddly malevolent beach bunny of a boss (Riley Keough from ‘The Girlfriend Experience’). The movie hangs out with the gang once Star finds them, slowly unfurling through a series of loosely connected episodes about young people struggling to find themselves, getting know each other, and seeking out a place in the world.
‘American Honey’ is kind of a coming-of-age movie, but not one that checks off the predictable life lesson arcs. Although Star goes through a series of perspective changing events, no dramatic point is ever lingered on for long. Writer/director Arnold is more interested in the energy, imagery and mumbling conversations of her group of oddball outsiders. Shot in a tight Academy Ratio frame, the movie is an explosion of color for the eyes at all times, dipping through various striking landscapes and strange faces. It’s almost like a friendlier version of a Harmony Korine film, reveling in outsider pockets of American subculture, with the mixture of humanity and oddity found in those places essentially the focus of the film. It’s certainly a unique world that Arnold explores with honesty and wide-eyed fascination. It’s just a shame that her long road leads to nowhere, even if that was the point.