Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
After a chance meeting with the seductive Jake (LaBeouf), free spirited 18 year old Star (Lane) leaves behind her troubled home in Midwest America to join Jake and a group of young magazine sellers as they travel across America.
So far Andrea Arnold has certainly proved herself to be an auteur with an uncompromising style and approach, and this has produced some excellent and certainly unforgettable films. However, in the case of American Honey she does unfortunately take this too far at times by not only forcing the audience to spend two hours and 43 minutes in the close company of a lot of characters it is often very hard to like, but also giving us a film with an overall lack discipline, focus or substance.
Now, to criticise Arnold for having a slightly rough-around-the-edges narrative structure of course would be slightly silly, as it is that approach and the naturalistic dialogue that are of course partly why some of her previous films were so good. Of course, most critics will lap this film up and give it as high praise as possible, but for me I am afraid Arnold just goes too far this time, making American Honey an overall quite exhausting and unsatisfying experience.
I have no problem with films demanding effort from the viewer, if that said effort is rewarded (The Revenant or Son of Saul being recent examples), but though there are certainly some great individual moments in American Honey, it’s extremely episodic narrative does not contain enough substance to justify its structure or length.
What is most ironic about American Honey is that its unique visual style renders it extremely cinematic and it does deserve to be seen on the big screen to get the most out of this, it is just a shame that it is also so exhausting. The entire film is shot in a narrow ratio, but this does actually suit the visual style of Arnold and her regular cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and due to both the land and sky being both a focus of the frequent long distance shots, the film actually feels more expansive than if it were shot in widescreen. Arnold and Ryan’s use of striking colours capture perfectly the various emotive landscapes of America, and often do serve to make American Honey a very immersive film. While we also get intense close ups of characters with hand held cameras when it fits a certain point in the narrative
For all its very impressive visuals, what ultimately does let American Honey down is its overall lack of focus, substance and discipline. There is no denying there are some individual moments involving the main characters that are very powerful, but overall it is hard to care about any of them, and some characters are very difficult to like at all. The film is very uncompromising in its depiction of the lives its characters lead and some of the moments that they experience during the narrative, but some moments hammer home apparent points being made so much that they verge on becoming patronising, especially as the audience is not being told anything they do not already know. While other moments just do not feel justified at all and the film would have certainly not suffered if they had been left in the cutting room.
The film would have certainly been a lot shorter if all the scenes of characters singing along to songs were cut out. These of course can be very effective moments, as these can depict the emotions characters are feeling better than any dialogue can, either as emphasis or juxtaposition, but there are just too many of these scenes for them to be effective. These scenes of teenagers singing, rapping and dancing along to songs get very tiresome very quickly and the fact there are so many of these does make the whole film feel not only ill-disciplined, but slightly self-indulgent.
One thing Arnold always manages to achieve is great performances from usually unknown cast members, this casting of unknowns in roles where they play characters that are admittedly very similar to their own actual personalities is very effective at complementing Arnold’s naturalistic approach. In her first film role, Sasha Lane is excellent and magnetic as Star, the film’s protagonist. Appearing in every scene, we essentially experience the narrative through her eyes and she is convincing and believable in her role, which certainly adds a key level of integrity to the film. As irritating as a lot of the supporting characters are, the acting is certainly spot on and very convincing.
The major surprise for me is Shia LaBeouf; though never particularly likeable, he is very convincing in his role. However, for all the great performances, stunning visuals and potentially interesting themes, American Honey is certainly watchable, but does ultimately fail to leave any kind of lasting impression.
American Honey is a film that does not tell us anything we don’t already know, and offers us characters that it is hard to care about and a narrative with a lack of substance, discipline or clear focus, and striking visuals can only disguise that so much.