With a title like American Honey, Andrea Arnold (in her first film set and shot outside her native UK) seems to invite comparisons, both positive and negative, to the almost inordinate explorations of what it means to be “American”. But oddly enough, the film doesn’t necessarily choose to go down this road; it is a work of pure experience, showing the “how” in the day-to-day lives of the magazine-selling crew while delving little into the “who” or “why”. The highs and lows that the viewer experiences seem entirely of the moment, and indeed these are people that live in such a state, but they are filtered and diluted through an unceasingly relaxed and conflict-free lens.
American Honey has the faintest glimmers of a plot, insofar that it spends just a scant (in the context of the film) 15 minutes setting up the protagonist, Star (Sasha Lane), a Southern teen scavenger who joins the crew at the behest of Jake (Shia LaBeouf, in an alarmingly varied performance). They, and Krystal (a cool Riley Keough), the leader of the group, are the only clearly defined characters in the film—the rest of the crew are introduced by name in the first of many lengthy scenes set in the van that they use to travel around the country, but aside from their individual quirks, which include one of the members frequently exposing his genitals and another (played by Arielle Holmes) being obsessed with Darth Vader, the characters all function as different heads of a single entity. They are continuously shunted into the background in favor of a growing romance between Star and Jake, and the conflict this causes with the no-nonsense Krystal.
Lane’s spirited performance is analogous to that of Katie Jarvis’s in Fish Tank, but it seems both even more centered and less important than in that movie. American Honey is resolutely fixed on her—I can’t remember a single scene that takes place without her presence—but at the same time Arnold’s vision seems distracted, anxious to capture all parts of the life that this rag-tag group leads in their attempts to get rich and have a good time. Sometimes, this approach works, such as in a wonderful interlude where Star jumps into the car of three cowboys (one of whom is played by Will Patton) and participates in a barbecue, but oftentimes it doesn’t, as in the endless scenes where the group lethargically sings along to the on-the-nose songs coming from the stereo. The film isn’t repetitive per se, but it only rarely (in that interlude for example) attempts to break from the rhythm it sets; it is comfortable but rather enervating, as the film only prolongs itself more and more.
And yet, there is clearly a sincere intent behind Arnold’s images. Whether it be to create her own Americana or to offer a comment on and/or praise of the modern youth, the sun-kissed photography by Robbie Ryan (with some gorgeous shots of insects and skies) and the frequent quiet imposed by the more romantic scenes seem to signal that something is happening. Perhaps the surprisingly primal ending, complete with a kind of baptism for Star, and the end credits provide the clearest answer: they begin by describing American Honey as a film by the actors in the mag crew, in roughly alphabetical order (aside from positioning Lane first). Though at times the film may resort to a simplified view of its subjects, whether they be part of the crew or the various buyers they meet along the way, it never stoops to gawking. Arnold feels too much for her characters to do that, and while this empathy sacrifices meaning for surface emotion, American Honey feels sincere, if not necessarily compelling. It exists, with the occasional display of verve, and certainly for some more in tune with the crew’s wavelength, that may be enough. But as for myself, I remain distant.