by Philip Price
“American Honey” would have you believe that everything that happens in America happens at magic hour. That golden period in the day just before sunset during which the daylight is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky. From depicting everything from its core group of ragtag door to door magazine salesman doing their best to scam the neighborhoods of middle America to seeing Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Star (Sasha Lane) consummate their distressed relationship, the film finds comfort in the waves of color exerted by the evening sky. “American Honey,” directed by Scottish-born filmmaker Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank”), would have you believe that the underbelly of America is one of harsh lines between the white trash and the wealthier classes that populate the southern regions of the country though to disparage the cracks in American culture to little more than two distinct categories is one of the films unfortunate misconceptions that is apparent from the get-go. Were it not for the clear intention of “American Honey” to be this sprawling epic at nearly three hours this lack of delineation would be more forgiving, but that it truly gives itself time to develop its characters and the landscape in which they exist one would like to have been delivered a more complex portrait that better mirrors the melting pot one can easily see this country to be by simply driving through any county in as random a state as Arkansas. Residing in a state most likely tend to forget about in the grand scheme of our nation, Arkansas keenly displays the actuality of just how gentle those lines between classes can be. Still, this nagging flaw that is present throughout Arnold's thesis on what is both so discouraging about the United States and what makes it so simultaneously charming can't tear down the entire effort from being valiant as “American Honey” is ultimately a sweet ode to our misfit of a nation. The film goes on too long and doesn't have enough of a narrative drive or intriguing enough character arcs to invest our own selves in, but somehow it remains engrossing-uplifting even with its inability to acutely examine class relations rendered somewhat unnecessary by the films ability to display the inherent hopefulness in each of us despite all the ugliness we tend to see surrounding us.
That lack of delineation as we'll refer to it may be a point of denial on my part as I always considered myself and my family to be a part of the middle class, but it wasn't difficult to see that just down the road and in the other kids I went to school with that there was a very fine line between having just enough and not having enough to ever feel comfortable. Being nurtured through that type of environment only blurred these lines even further and while I can complain about “American Honey” not taking as accurate an approach as it seems a film with this ambition might need to I can also acknowledge that Arnold's intent is clearly to shine a light more on the impoverished and poverty-stricken areas of the country that many would like to pretend don't exist and overlook. It's easy to dismiss sections of towns and cities that are poorer than other areas and simply accept that to live or exist in that area is a choice and that if an individual wants to free themselves of such an existence then they will conjure up the work ethic to do so. As with everything, this is true in certain cases while not being as much in others. In Arnold's film we are introduced to a group of late teens and twenty-somethings who have all clearly come from rough situations and are afforded little opportunity because of those roots leaving the majority of them few other options than to become a prime example of what those crotchety old white men are talking about when they describe the laziness and entitlement of millennials. Thus, the point of the film becoming that of humanizing these people most tend to disregard. The film is intent on demonstrating several different types of depictions around such individuals with each of the actors portraying the band of youths here feeling as natural as one could ask for -- almost as if many of them were picked off the streets based solely on their look and the charisma they carried. Being a part of such a sprawling cast means relying on transferring a lot of information with only a look or a walk or how one carries them self and the supporting players here are each given distinct aura's due largely to an authenticity in their origins being similar to those of the characters they're playing. We are given our most vivid portrait of this side of the fence through Lane's Star as she is little more than an 18 year old trapped in the situation of a 30 year old when we first meet her.
Shacked up with an older man who already has two kids from a previous relationship and living in a scrap yard of generations past with overgrown lawns that are only broken up by faded little tikes toys, Star's current boyfriend works a paycheck to paycheck job that pays for his children and live-in girlfriend to eat Spam every night while he seems to find fulfillment in little more than drinking beer and blasting Sam Hunt. Even the song choice of something like Hunt's "Take Your Time," feels appropriate in that it's a cut from the current death march country music is on whereas it seems that is the only option left for Star, her boyfriend, and his unfortunate children who will inevitably end up in the same boat as them when they get older. Running into the magnetic and seemingly spontaneous Jake one day at the grocery store both Star and LaBeouf's Jake sense an immediate attraction and connection to one another. Jake is part of this caravan of kids who travel from city to city under the thumb of boss Krystal (Riley Keough) who designates certain neighborhoods and areas of cities in which to disperse her crew to go door to door trying to sell magazines and make enough money to cover gas and lodging while allowing her band of bohemians to take a percentage of their cut-the likes of which is more than most of them have ever possessed before. Jake doesn't hesitate in inviting Star along despite the fact he is firmly planted under Krystal's authoritative order when on the road. Star sees this chance to escape her current situation as her only hope of surpassing the low bar the circumstances she was born into set for her. And so, we're off and it's easy to make snap judgments about these kids and some are made deservedly so as getting a dog high is flat-out ignorant and cruel, but with many of these individuals the point is to take their current form as a pure result of the state of affairs into which they were born and how those have informed this current state they are at when we come to meet them. As we go along with them Arnold utilizes the backdrop of the sun-kissed suburbia's and never-ending freeways and fields to insert random shots of the moon, sky and other insignificant observations that further emphasize the atmosphere of this piece of work that is just as much about the ambiance as it is the characters that populate it.
Shot nearly entirely in a handheld fashion with natural and available light in the aspect ratio of 4:3 this choice almost immediately calls into question why such a decision was made when such a large point of the film is to put on display the wide-open spaces of Middle America. In a strange way, this severely square aspect ratio immediately inspires a somewhat nostalgic feel for the simpler days of tube TV's and the pre-internet age where people connected simply through other people. This choice, paired with Arnold's choice of soundtrack are some of the bolder ideas that are immediately striking in the most appealing of ways. Pairing her naturalistic visual approach and the similarly genuine quality of the performances with music ranging from the likes of E-40 to Lady Antebellum and their track from which the film takes its name, we feel we get a wide range of states of mind that these characters and especially Star go through. Other than providing that further dimension of understanding the music simply adds an edge and attitude to the picture that wouldn't necessarily be lacking without such bold choices, but would certainly not be as effective were the selections not as brazen. Of course, that we come to understand and empathize with Star in the way we do is mostly due to Lane who makes her acting debut in “American Honey.” With an obvious endearing quality apparent the moment Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan's camera lays its lens on her, Lane is more than arresting in what she brings to the largely improvised scenes that end up giving us only a sketch of an outline of the truth of who Star is. We know she is 18 and that her mother died from meth use when she was 15, but outside of that Star is a canvas on which Lane can seemingly paint anything she wants. We come to see this lost girl realize that her simple ambitions can't even be met by doing what seems to be her ticket out of her rote routine. It's an achingly painful realization to experience with her. Star is a misguided soul who only yearns to have a patch of earth to call her own and raise her kids on, but she can't help but to find herself in increasingly complicated situations whether that be due to her empathy, her infatuations, or her need for those pieces of paper that make the world go ’round. As for LaBeouf, he reminds us once again why he is one of the more skilled actors working today as his Jake is a figurative lone wolf who only knows how to interact with people by scanning them upon meeting them and figuring out what type of person they want in their life and immediately becoming that person, but who is lost without someone to guide him. In this case he desires that guide to be Star, but he seems hesitant to let slip his security with Krystal. The arc of their relationship reinforcing that such a lifestyle can only remain exciting for so long before the con is up and the buyers will see through their shtick. These kids were never selling magazines, but themselves in the hope they might find something better, more purposeful in life. In the understanding there is only a small window of time where consumers believe such a shift is possible, these kids realize they only have so long before they're stuck with what they feel destined for.
At two hours and 43 minutes, “American Honey” takes its audience through a number of sequences and events that could have certainly been boiled down into a 100-minute feature. While the running time can seem self-indulgent in spots, the final shot is made all the more rewarding by the investment that time spent with these characters creates. There is a sequence near the end in which this traveling troupe settles into a desolate farmhouse on the outskirts of a town where the inhabitants are either so rich they'll pity the kids or so poor they'll relate to them that serves to symbolize the ideal dream Star wishes her reality would deliver. That she and Jake find one another in the open fields behind the house and make love as the evening sun bounces off their skin only serves to solidify the type of existence she could hope to have as opposed to the one she currently has to deal in where her mental state is put to the test day in and day out not only by those she meets in her magazine pitches, but by those closest to her. “American Honey” is a movie intended to be this great lyrical poem to the current youth of America that has an epic feeling to it considering the ground it covers and to large degrees the film is exactly that. The performances included are somewhat revelatory as far as peeling back and exposing the more shameful aspects of our country while the whirling and organic visuals are as lush and beautiful as one could hope given the title of the film. But despite all of this, the film ultimately doesn't hit as heavy an emotional impact as it seems to want or need in order to be as poignant as it so badly yearns to be. There is a scene about an hour and a half into the film that features Will Patton as a wealthy cowboy who, along with some of his buddies, are getting ready to cook a few steaks and have a good time and come across a stranded Star who they pick up as she tries to sell them magazine subscriptions. The sequence stands out because there is no pretense to the interests of all parties involved and the cowboys are willing to throw down some serious money if Star can commit to finishing off a bottle of Mezcal, a distilled alcohol made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico, topping it off by eating the worm at the bottom of the bottle. But, like the film itself the cowboys are too focused on Star eating the worm because it's the more outlandish action to take when the emphasis for eliciting something astonishing should be on her finishing the drink as it's the Mezcal that will do something to you, not eating the worm.