Andrea Arnold is the only Brit in contention for the Palme d’Or, so hopes were high for her first US-set feature. After focusing on marginalised youth in Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, Arnold gets down with the kids once again with American Honey.
Star (Sasha Lane) is a teen in an unhappy relationship, bringing up another woman’s kids with her ne’er do well boyfriend. The film opens with Star and the two kids rummaging through a skip, looking for discarded supermarket food. While trying to hitch a ride home, she spots Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a mini bus full of boisterous teens on their way to the store. Drawn to his charisma and the energy of the group, Star takes up Jake’s offer of a job in Kansas City, dumping the children with their mum (one of the best lines in the film is from the daughter, who on realising she’s about to be left with her mother says to Star “This was your surprise?”) and making a run towards freedom.
The job is that of selling magazine subscriptions door to door in various towns across the country. Star is partnered with Jake and they set off to make their pitch. Essentially, what we have for the next two and a half hours is a road movie as the group moves from town to town, motel to motel, implausible scenario to implausible scenario.
During the early scenes when Star first hits the road with her new crew is when the film is the strongest. Arnold has gathered together a group of non-professional actors who are utterly convincing as the motley crew of kids from all over the US, who are not unlike the group of pickpockets in Oliver Twist. The Fagin of the gang is Krystal (Riley Keough), a disciplinarian in a confederate flag bikini who enforces her rules on this travelling band. Unfortunately, not content with establishing the personalities and characteristics of the group just once, Arnold keeps repeating every act and trait ad nauseum. It’s as though we have been kidnapped and are being held against our will on the mini bus as we go through yet another sing-along, smoke a bit more weed, drink a little more vodka and disembark at yet another anonymous motel.
Another problem is plausibility. Who in middle America would open their door to these kids, let alone buy a magazine subscription from them? And why magazine subscriptions? Star’s reaction to Jake’s sales pitch when they enter a home together is also unlikely. She knows they lie in order to sell, so why is she so upset by it? When Star and Jake get together, their relationship doesn’t ring true either. This is the fault of the script, not the actors, both of whom put in fine performances, but their acting isn’t enough to convince us that any of this is real.
Arnold obviously wants to show us the disenfranchised youth of America and depict the poverty of the nation, an issue often ignored by filmmakers. However, Roberto Minervini has been much more successful at portraying the poor underbelly of the US with films like Low Tide. American Honey is teeming with amazing shots there’s no denying that Andrea Arnold has a wonderful eye – but these visual delights are not enough to hold this lengthy and ultimately tedious film together.