I often wonder about the impact of experiencing a film at a festival with a crowd that respects the sanctity of the cinema, as opposed to frequenting the local mulitplex with its texting, popcorn-munching patrons and their noisy, ill-behaved children. Can our opinions about a film be drastically swayed by the environment in which that film is experienced? Does the “festival buzz” have the potential to elevate a mediocre offering into a critical darling?
I found myself struggling mightily with this question after seeing British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a sprawling 162-minute road trip movie that seems to lack anything resembling a destination for its characters, or its audience. The film has been riding a wave of positive reviews since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and while there are some undeniably spectacular elements at work here – including the discovery of an incredible young actress and a career-best performance from one of Hollywood’s most maligned personalities – I found the overall film to be rife with shortcomings.
When we first encounter Star (the amazingly gifted Sasha Lane), she’s rummaging through a dumpster in search of food for the two young siblings in her care. We get the sense that this routine is a fairly common occurrence in their lives, and Star accepts her role as guardian of these little ones with an admirable amount of grace and dignity. En route to the filth-laden dwelling they call home, the group encounters Jake (Shia LeBeouf), the de facto leader of a merry band of traveling “sales consultants” who peddle magazines door-to-door.
It sounds like a perfectly shit job, but there’s something about the idea of escape that appeals to our young heroine – especially if that escape affords her the opportunity to spend more time with the cute guy who she’s inexplicably drawn to. She drops the kids off at the local honky-tonk with an adult woman that we assume is a relative, piles into the van with the rest of the group, and sets out to experience the world for the first time. Her companions are a fascinating collection of characters that include the sleepwalking, Star Wars-obsessed Pagan (Arielle Holmes) or the California-born Corey (McCaul Lombardi), whose claim to fame appears to be the penis that he constantly feels compelled to display.
Arnold’s decision to compile a cast of mostly unknown or inexperienced performers serves the film very well, as we rarely get the sense that anyone in the film is acting. Everyone feels like an authentic human being, with a real personality and identity, which makes it an incredible shame that we barely get to know any of these characters – they exists mostly as background noise, just another layer to give the viewer a sense of what Arnold imagines Middle America to look and sound like. It’s not that she’s incorrect in her assertions – in fact, many of Star’s companions remind me of people I knew back when I lived in the Midwest – but I would have liked to see a deeper exploration of some of the film’s other characters.
There’s a rowdy, raucous dynamic to this group, and a truer sense of family and togetherness than Star has even known. But there’s also a darker side, as evidenced by the ritual of “Loser’s Night,” where the lowest-performing reps are forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat while the rest of the group cheers from the sidelines. This nauseating custom is the brainchild of Krystal (Riley Keough), the spray-tanned, chain-smoking ringleader who rests at the top of the food chain, using the group’s daily proceeds to expand her personal wardrobe (which seems to consist almost entirely of bathing suits). Jake’s interest in Star immediately sparks her ire, and she puts the newcomer on notice: step out of line, and we’ll leave you on the side of the road.
One might think this barely realized love triangle would be the central conflict of American Honey, but it’s presented as more of an ancillary thread, popping up occasionally to make sure the audience hasn’t forgotten about it and then fading into the background once more. Indeed, most of the true conflict here is the internal, as Star tries to balance her own sense of morality with the dishonest sales tactics favored by the rest of the group, and reconcile her attraction toward Jake with the harsh reality of their connection. There are some truly poignant moments as Star continues to discover more and more about the person she wants to become, but the film’s meandering approach to storytelling means that many of these moments are swallowed up by endlessly repetitious sequences featuring the group selling magazines, partying, and singing along to whatever song is currently playing in the van.
American Honey seems like it has a lot to say about capitalism, poverty, love, camaraderie and a host of other topics, but the excruciating running time and a lack of clear focus is a great disservice to whatever message it hopes to convey. Somewhere in this loosely assembled narrative is a compelling story about a young woman finding her place in the world, and the fact that it should be lost amid all the extraneous and unnecessary footage is tragically ironic.