Andrea Arnold's new film, American Honey (2016), is a journey across the American South. The characters portrayed on screen are like real people that one could see just about anywhere in the nation, but particularly in the South. Unprivileged white youth aimlessly go along with the motions of what is easy. There are no dreams, and there definitely isn't an "American dream" to be had by these young adults... Perhaps there could be dreams, and they certainly have their own desires for happiness, but this vision of America and its young adults relishes in the have-nots and the complexity of their seemingly simple lives. The routine of life on the road is not attractive, but it's comfortable for them, and Andrea Arnold hopes that we'll be content observing the protagonists' own contentment with what they've made of themselves.
Eighteen and aimless, Star (Sasha Lane) is introduced deep in a dumpster with a seven-year-old girl as they peruse for food. Tossing a thawing chicken down to a three-year-old boy outside of the dumpster, they then make their way to the side of the street to hitch a ride home. No one stops to give them a ride, but a fateful meeting of eyes provides hope for something more. In the passenger seat of a large white van, Jake (Shia Leboeuf) makes eye contact with Star as the van pulls into a supermarket parking lot. Choosing to cross the street with the two white children she's with, Star is pursuing an interest in Jake while taking the first step to separating herself from the little kids she's with. It's an odd sensation, as she enters the supermarket and Rihanna begins playing diegetically over the store intercom radio as she finds Jake – is she going to abandon the kids? It doesn't matter that the kids don't look like Star (as she's mixed and has dreadlocks), but we feel her own desire to escape. "We found love in a hopeless place," sings Rihanna as Jake begins dancing on top of the cashier counter to impress Star. This moment is indicative of the style for much of the film ahead – music playing from speakers and car radios with characters dancing or singing along with the music.
Following Jake, upon being escorted from the supermarket by security, Star is offered a job selling magazines across the country that would pay at least $300 a day, but she'd have to leave for Kansas City tomorrow if she wants in. The playful sexual tension between them is electric, but we're relieved that she doesn't immediately accept the offer as that would require abandoning the kids at the supermarket.
Back home, we see more of what she'll be running away from. A drunken partner, who happens to be the father of the kids she was dumpster diving with, would be the primary thing to escape. Though it's selfish of her to ditch the kids with their birth mom who doesn't want them, that's exactly what Star does – and yet, Star is eighteen and doesn't need to be caring for kids that aren't her own, so we (as an audience) forgive her as she makes her way to the hotel to find Jake.
Few films capture the monotony of life on the road as well as American Honey does. Naturally, monotony isn't necessarily a positive trait, and it generally isn't here. The film's length allows for the sequences on the road to become repetitive (which is fitting, as road trips are repetitive), but it's as a result of very little character development taking place in these sequences. The characters are truly passive, which clashes with what most road movies strive to overcome: the passivity of sitting while traveling in a car. Still, it's reflective of their wayward disposition. Jake, for example, knows the character and cadence of privilege, but it's merely an act for him as he uses faux aspirations to attend college to gain sympathy from those who do have privilege so that they'll purchase magazines from him. The ease at which Jake exhibits his lack of honesty is alarming to Star – as she's more likely to tell the truth when asked (as when she reveals nonchalantly that her mom died from a meth overdose). Shia Leboeuf's performance as Jake in these moments is the saving grace of this film, as his charm and on screen presence is galvanizing, but that charm clashes with Star's honesty and integrity that is contradicted by her own spontaneity.
Complimenting Star's honesty and spontaneity is cinematographer Robbie Ryan's camera work, which is handheld and in the 4:3 Academy ratio. The camera follows the action and movements of characters on screen with a shallow focus that draws attention to the immediate subjects in frame. In which by using the 4:3 aspect ratio, the film aesthetically recalls the look of handcams rather than traditional cinema before the proliferation of widescreen cinema. However, one of 4:3's advantages is that it can accentuate vertical compositions, as opposed to widescreen which emphasizes horizontal landscapes. The sky, and characters juxtaposed against it, is a significant element of the look of the film, as it frees them from their immediate environment and allows for the sky to literally be the limit for their potential, if they choose to push themselves.
On the surface, a film about young American adults partying and acting out may elicit comparisons to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers (2013), but it is the films' dissimilarities that make for a more interesting and accurate case study. The protagonists of Spring Breakers come from a nice college, are of privilege, and Selena Gomez' character even attends church. American Honey finds characters coming from the opposite end of the spectrum – a film comprised of young people who have little to live for, but they certainly wouldn't accept that idea (and the film certainly thinks they are people of value – which they are, but the narrative celebrates the path they've taken... which is no better than the party lifestyle the girls in Spring Breakers adopt). Beyond that, the scenes featuring Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine singing Britney Spears' songs are at least fun – especially compared to the endless slew of songs the van full of young adults in American Honey sing along to. Realistically, American Honey is more akin to Korine's directorial debut, Gummo (1997), but that's too far down the socio-economic ladder to be taken seriously.
Though American Honey is not without its flaws, it has some enjoyable moments, powerful scenes, and features Shia Leboeuf in one of his best roles since Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (2013). The film's excessive running time is its biggest detracting factor, but even the length of American Honey seems natural to what is being portrayed. It's a road film, and the road is as aimless as the personal journey of the film's protagonist, Star, and her magazine-selling peers. That there's no redemption or exit route for these characters is problematic, but this is their life, and Andrea Arnold accepts that life doesn't always turn out beautifully – a truth that is hard to swallow.
My rating: 3/5