British writer-director Andrea Arnold’s new film, her first made in the US, is precisely the sort of picture that critics are meant to adore. A rambling, repetitive road movie that purports to say something deep about the nation’s youth and its class system, shot in the lyrically gritty style that might cause one to compare it to chic 1970s filmmaking, “American Honey” practically demands that you swoon over it. Some of us, however, will resist its supposed edgy brilliance, and mainstream audiences will certainly find it a pretentious bore.
The protagonist is Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), a teen trapped in a miserable home environment in dismal Muskogee, Oklahoma. She’s a virtual serf to her sleazy stepfather, forced to rummage through dumpsters for food to put on the table for him and her two siblings while her slatternly mother is out barhopping. She sees a chance of escape when she encounters a van filled with wild kids at a local strip-mall megastore. They’re a rowdy group that travels around selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, pretending that they’re getting some unspecified “points” that might earn them a spot in a college or some such prize. Star is instantly taken with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a high-energy hipster who does an impromptu dance to “We Found Love” at the store’s checkout lane—a ploy that would be unbearably heads-on in an ordinary romantic comedy but will probably be considered clever in this context—and suggests that she join their pack.
Star quickly dumps her brother and sister off with their mother at a bar and climbs aboard. The various other kids are introduced in shorthand, but the only other person who really matters is Krystal (Riley Keough), the manager of the squad, who parcels out the routes that the sellers will take—as well as praise and blame for those who do well or poorly at pushing the product. She assigns Star to Jake, her top guy, for on-the-job training, which frankly doesn’t go all that well, though the relationship between the two certainly gets more intense (though it, too, is not without bumps, given that Star isn’t all that docile a student). The duo’s growing attachment affects his productivity, which annoys the brittle Krystal, who also evinces more than a patch of jealousy.
After the opening reel, in which Star’s unhappy life in Muskogee is trenchantly sketched, the movie develops a ramshackle, scattershot quality, spinning its wheels rather than going anywhere (though the troupe does travel to Kansas and the Dakotas). There are episodes that are presumably meant to be revelatory but are either obvious or confused. Jake and Star visit a suburban home where they’re reluctantly invited in by a rigid housewife whose daughter and young friends are celebrating a birthday in the backyard, and Star grows increasingly antagonistic over the view of a comparatively privileged life. Assigned a run-down area to cover, Star finds a couple of neglected children trying amuse themselves while their junkie mother sleeps her life away, and brings them back some groceries. Star sells herself to an oilfield worker for a night. She jumps in a convertible with a trio of cowboy types wearing Stetsons and goes off with them to a barbecue, where they offer her shots of mescal and bribe her to swallow the worm (what that could lead to happily isn’t at issue, since Jake shows up with a gun to break up the party). One of the ’pokes is played by veteran Will Patton, who—to be frank—looks a mite uncomfortable trying to fit into Arnold’s loose, improvisatory style.
There are also lots of shots of insect life—fields filled with fireflies, repeated inserts of Star saving moths and wasps from danger—which are presumably meant to indicate (like the scene with the neglected children) her innate sensitivity to the plight of little, unprotected things—as well as sequences of her and Jake gamboling about (until Krystal temporarily separates them in a show of authority). But these “touching” moments have a counterpoint in others where they act like a mini Bonnie and Clyde, stealing cars and guns and whatever falls within reach without compunction, apparently because the people who own the stuff are hypocrites who aren’t really deserving of it.
Lane certainly shoots sparks as Star, though her basically flinty personality gets to be a downer over nearly three hours of constant company, and while LaBeouf gives Jake the manic quality the role requires, he can’t make one fully accept the sudden shifts in the character. The remainder of the crew are basically one-note figures—one is a gross exhibitionist, another a “Star Wars” fanatic—but they work as a sort of rambunctious chorus that revels in losing themselves in drink, drugs and violence. Keough certainly stands out as a slinky Fagin who evinces little interest in anybody but herself, unless they’re of use to her.
Robbie Ryan is bound to attract a good deal of praise for his cinematography, and his visuals do capture isolated moments of extraordinary if gritty beauty. Overall, though, the hectic style becomes more than a little monotonous over so long a span. The musical choices are certainly eclectic.
Undoubtedly there will be those who find “American Honey” incisive and enlightening in opening a window to a world most will never have experienced. Many, however, are likely to wish the window had remained closed. Arnold’s last film was an awful modernist take on “Wuthering Heights.” This portrait of young romance among the American underclass is more tolerable but only just.