Andrea Arnold’s American Honey joins Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012) as a volatile and subversive social commentary about what teenagers are really up to when there are no responsible adults around. The best news is that American Honey surpasses both of those films in terms of importance and entertainment. Similar to the recent Hell of High Water, this is a powerful movie about poverty in America. Both films show an America hurt badly by the recession.
The film opens up looking straight up at the glaring sun and then we see a teenage girl and two younger children digging through garbage. As they rummage through the dumpster for food writer/director Andrea Arnold is clearly stating to the audience what this film is going to be about. The teenage girl is named Star, played by Sasha Lane in a very strong performance especially for her debut feature. She really carries this film and makes her journey worth following. She has nothing going for her and nothing to lose so she joins a group of young adults around her age that travel across the Mid-West selling magazine subscriptions. This sets off a lot of moments of hard partying, sex and drugs as our character grows up from experiencing new people and places. American Honey emerges as a skewed road picture that felt like the granddaughter of Easy Rider (1969).
Interestingly, this movie was shot in the standard 1:33 frame instead of the usual anamorphic widescreen. This seems like an odd choice but then as the film progresses there are a lot of disjointed medium shots, very few if any wide establishing shots. This was done because we are seeing the world through these characters eyes, and even though our main character Star is seen doing a lot of adult things, she is still a child with other children and zero parental guidance. The cinematography and shot selection was similar to last years powerful film Room, which was also told as if the camera was portraying a child’s point of view.
The acting in American Honey felt brutally honest and realistic. Enough praise cannot adequately suffice for Sasha Lane as the main character, without her being able to convey her emotional journey the film would simply not work. The nuances the story added to her character made her even more interesting like how she has an affection for animals and the feeling is mutual. We constantly see Star interacting with creatures from nature ranging from insects to a massive bear and they are all friendly to her. The socioeconomic class commentary works because we experience everything through her eyes. She is like a deer in headlights when she first sees a big city and then filled with even more shock, awe and envy as she sees how the upper class lives.
Shia LaBeouf gives his best performance since the original Transformers (2007) as the young man she falls for and convinces her to work selling magazines, although this could not be any more different than Transformers in every possible way. Riley Keough as her boss and leader of this band of misfit and lost teens has moments of being endearing but then immediately can be cutthroat to the point of being downright scary. The female jealousy and mind games she plays on Star really make the audience despise her and they may forget how great her performance is in a rather small role.
The weakest aspect of American Honey is its length. It is long and at times it feels long. A few scenes could have been edited down and it would have flowed better if it were about twenty minutes shorter. Also the ending was rather unsatisfying. Star is with her group in what is supposed to be interpreted as hell, or a fun party depending on how you look at it, and then there is an obvious rebirth that her character goes through. After all that we had seen and experienced with her, the ending felt too blatant and not as powerful as many scenes that had come before it.
American Honey has a very neo-realist look and feel. A lot of the actors look like children their age more than the average movie about teenagers, and all of the adults do not look like actors at all, except for Will Patton in one scene. The young adults in this movie are desperate for money not seeking a thrill or trying to get rich quick. The red, white and blue colors are a recurring motif and can be found in almost every frame, but done with subtlety and never overbearingly noticeable. The title American Honey refers to Southern girls and practically every shot is a reminder that we are healing as a country from bad leadership and still hurting from a bad economy as we strive to find the American dream.
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