American Honey is a film that many people will end up taking sides on.
It’s hard to say why multiple films can all go about the same way of telling their story, yet only some will succeed. Equally hard to pinpoint is why I think Andrea Arnold’s method of telling the story in American Honey feels so appropriate and satisfying to me; then falls completely flat when attempted elsewhere, even with a movie involving similar themes and demographics. In a way, I might be trying to soften the blow to those who will inevitably hate this movie. Like other slower-paced, formally unconventional dramas, American Honey is a film that many people will end up taking sides on.
The running time is somewhere around two hours and 40 minutes, and housed within that duration is a roughly 90-minute (by my estimate) narrative about Star, a teenager running away from her impoverished and destitute conditions at home. She joins a group of other displaced youth who travel from city to city in a large white van, staying in motels for periods of several days while they sell magazines in the surrounding areas. Although she is hired by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), she is employed by the cold and jealous Krystal (Riley Keough). Tensions arise as Star and Jake begin a sexual relationship, much to the domineering Krystal’s intense disapproval.
Chaotic parties, run-ins with the law, and a mix of unsettling, disturbing, and occasionally amusing situations concurrently beleaguer and liberate Star and her transient companions. Why is this just a 90-minute narrative? Because the remainder of the time doesn’t focus on Star’s progress or the sequence of events that move the story forward. Frequently, the movie cuts to lengthy interludes of the characters singing hip-hop in the van, dancing around bonfires, or horsing around in motel parking lots.
Star is a character the bends to the will of others, and the major arc of American Honey is her emergence into individuality and self-sufficiency. But to reiterate, this journey is cut up into small segments and dropped in as punctuation. So what’s occurring is a story that serves to underline the setting and atmosphere, not the other way around. For a road movie that concerns aimless and displaced youth, this conceit turns out rather successful. But it’s up to each individual viewer as to how effective or entertaining it is. Like I said, other movies attempt to do the same thing.
While not nearly as long, an earlier film I reviewed, Brigend, attempts to suspend segments of its main story in a foreboding atmosphere that, too, involves partying and reckless teenage whims. I think its central mistake is in thinking that repetition and emphasis of a destructive youth culture is a petty and shallow explanation of a very real and fascinating case of mass suicides. American Honey’s subject isn’t near as sordid, and in establishing its world as leisurely, aimless, and indulgent, Arnold’s method of spacing out Star’s journey and placing it in the confused and reckless surroundings she inhabits with her peers becomes highly appropriate and congruent with the tale she wishes to tell. | Nic Champion