Put American Before a Word And It’s A Movie
by ETHAN PETERSON
dir. Andrea Arnold
American Honey begins with Star (Sasha Lane) foraging in a dumpster with two young children she is monitoring for unknown reasons. They find what looks like a whole chicken. When expired and turning, chicken retains a most loathsome smell, like the dung of the living animal the corpse semiotically represents. If it ever occurred to you to consider what Shia LaBoeuf smells like, wonder no longer.
After he had spent some time in America, Alexis de Tocqueville reached a lot of important conclusions about what a more equal society meant for art, politics and nationalism. “When I arrive in a country where I find some of the finest productions of the arts, I learn from this fact nothing of the social condition or of the political constitution of the country,” de Tocqueville wrote. “But if I perceive that the productions of the arts are generally of an inferior quality, very abundant and very cheap, I am convinced that, amongst the people where this occurs, privilege is on the decline, and that ranks are beginning to intermingle, and will soon be confounded together.”
Writer-director Andrea Arnold pulled a de Tocqueville and made a survey of the route Star and her sudden boyfriend Jake (LaBoeuf) take in American Honey, from Miami to California. It really feels like she does not exactly respect anything in this film, except for the kind of grudging solidarity young people experience without the presence of adults.
Arnold has a gift for casting, and while Lane herself is clearly not experienced enough a performer to pull off this role (Arnold found her on a beach in Florida), the unknowns Arnold surrounds her with give American Honey such a unique feel that at times it approaches the thrill of obscured and secret documentary.
In between these real-seeming sequences is the story of Star herself as she sells magazines door-to-door with the rest of the group. Mostly she encounters misogyny, rape and violence, sometimes she experiences a kindness that is mostly incidental. Arnold is effective at creating teens who actually behave in a realistic manner: not just as miniature adults or larger sized children. Rap music plays a substantial role in the film’s soundtrack, and its embrace by a group of mostly white teens is somewhat tone-deaf, and the music overall is substantially disappointing.
LaBoeuf himself at first seems completely engaged with his character. His moments with the group’s leader Krystal (Riley Keough, in a breakout role) are particularly nuanced and compelling. At other times he seems frustrated to be playing opposite Lane, who like most untrained actors is only capable of projecting emotion at a surface level. Romance blossoms anyway, although for the many excitements and dramas that take place on this road trip, American Honey is duller than almost any project of its type.
The sex scenes themselves consume a copious amount of time. They are a depressingly tame reminder of Arnold’s fakery, and are no more real-seeming than when Bridget Jones makes it with Colin Firth. It seems disappointing and revealing that LaBoeuf’s eccentricities are completely contrived. As he once admitted in an interview, he plans out his entire funky look in every aspect. His artistic side is no more legit: LaBoeuf’s writing career mostly consisted of rewriting Daniel Clowes comics. (Eventually Clowes’ attorney ended this through a cease-and-desist.)
Unfortunately, and not unlike most of Arnold’s movies, American Honey is too real to be fake and too fake to be real. Its various views of the American south make the place seem like a disturbed and unfocused wasteland, and the understanding of society itself is limited at best. I don’t think that Arnold means to be condescending about what she depicts; she sincerely empathizes with these abandoned teens. But her concern is more overwrought than not – there is nothing wrong with living whatever way you want, and suffering the consequences.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.