Walking out of a screening of the visceral of “American Honey,” I wasn’t sure what to think. Few films this year are comparable visually and in terms of character analysis. That being said, despite its excellent direction, acting and visuals, the film had a number of flaws.
The story revolves around the protagonist Starr (Sarah Lane), an 18-year-old girl living in extreme poverty in the southern United States. She is taking care of two kids who are not her own and has an abusive relationship with an alcoholic. She is dumpster diving with two kids for supper when we first meet her. Starr is waiting for an opportunity to get out. Finally, it presents itself the form of Jake (Shia Labeouf), who offers her a job to join him and his gang of rascals selling magazines all over America. She takes the job — and takes us along for every step of the wild ride.
Director Andrea Arnold shines in her exploration of the desperate, party-driven lifestyle on the American highway. The film is shot entirely handheld, which is usually too shaky for me, but about 10 minutes into “American Honey” I had adjusted. The shooting captured each frame in a rich, realistic sense; I felt like I was in the van with the group of rejects, cruising down an open road. I almost expected one of them to pass me a joint at any moment. Interspersed with scenes of partying and door-to-door magazine sales are gorgeous shots of the American landscape and insects. Arnold is known for using bugs and animals as symbols for characters and plot points in her films, and “American Honey” is no different.
The story has extremely high aspirations and at times does not convey all of them in a cohesive way. It attempts to be a commentary on the lives of impoverished and desperate Americans, a road-trip and coming-of-age drama, a tale of possessive love and an exploration of a door-to-door sales world so far largely unexplored in film. While it does reach some of these lofty goals, it cannot sustain the sheer weight of all it is trying to accomplish. The ambiguity of the story telling — while thought provoking — left me with more questions than answers, and I felt that the film was building toward a climax it never quite reached. It left me unsatisfied and wanting more than what I got.
The two leads shine in their performances. Lane, in her mainstream film debut, draws you in the moment she appears on screen. She presents Starr as such a layered, traumatized and naive character that you can’t help but relate to her pain and curiosity in her exploration of the unknown. You are with her through it all, and even when she puts herself in extremely questionable situations you pray she’ll make it out unscathed. This is her film. Labeouf was arresting and fills the character Jake with magnetism in a way that contrasts with the more understated, inward-looking performance of Lane.The character’s personality doesn’t stray far from that of the actor portraying him. They are both known to be charming and sometimes behave erratically. Jake is a terrible human being, but damnit if I didn’t love watching him behave terribly.
The main downfall of “American Honey” is its runtime. It is close to three hours long, and though the story is fascinating and worthwhile, I don’t believe it needed that much time to tell its tale. Movies that long need to prove that they’re worth the dedication of such a large chunk of your day. Films like “Lord of the Rings,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Godfather” come close to the runtime of “American Honey,” but in those classics, every moment is essential to the story. I found many moments of this film to be visually pleasing but unnecessary to the progression of the story. I see no reason why it couldn’t have been cut down by at least half an hour.
“American Honey” is a contemporary adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” done right, while also evoking the desperation of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Though it was a bit too long, and the story needed more work to truly flow, it was a truly freeing experience that titillated all my senses.