American Honey full movie review - "We fell in love in a hopeless place"
This is sun-drenched, ultra-cinema-verite, like if the Maysles took a couple of bong hits before making a movie about kids selling magazines halfway across the country.
This said though, by the end of it, not unlike Springbreakers (this is VERY Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, more on that in a minute), though it's also clearly the same voice that did Fish Tank as well, I thought to myself... what was the point? But then when you have so many compelling little details it's bound to amount to something.
While I'm not sure in American Honey if there is a 'point,' maybe Andrea Arnold didn't intend for one. Not every drama needs a thesis statement, but I was hoping for more by the end of the movie than 'well, they just keep going on, and maybe this character will move on, or not, it's what it is, right?' I'm starting off by saying this since I want to get my gripes out of the way first; for the most part, Arnold's film is worthwhile and special as a document of 2016 while seeming to be a piece of fiction. If there is a point to it all it's... 'hey, this is America, wow, what do you think of it? hashtagTrump, right?' Actually, when I think about it now typing this, it may be another example of current-day American neo-realism (the year before Bahrani did that to an extent with 99 Homes), where we, whether we are familiar with this world of the middle America, with its sometimes okay sections (i.e. those who work in the oil fields, some town) and the much poorer ones, see what the people are going through via some select fictional characters.
This is a road movie that has the barest set-up - Star, a young woman who has a nowhere future with a man she can't stand taking care of kids that (I think) aren't even hers, is picked out by a sort-of-not-really-maybe-depends-on-which-way-you're-looking smooth-talker Jake, Shia LaBeouf plays, who asks if she'd like to come along with he and his group to sell magazines - and then takes off into nearly three hours of a narrative that is loose as hell, a series of episodes as Star and Jake sort-of-not-really grow closer, and she keeps on doing what she's always been: being herself, which can work and sometimes, painfully, not.
If I were to teach a serious screen writing class to some younger people, this would be an excellent example of how to make a movie that doesn't necessarily have to adhere to a three-act structure. This doesn't mean that it's without an emotional throughline, at least in some form: we see how Star and Jake have their relationship, which gets tested by the "boss" of the group played by a no-BS (except when she gets away with it, which is often) Riley Keough (she, like Sasha Lane as Star, is so convincing I thought she was like all the other people, likely plucked from the 'streets' so to speak, and actually I found out Lane *was* plucked from the streets, it's her debut, which makes this as astonishing as something De Sica or Rossellini might do, it's one of the underrated performances of the year).
But American Honey serves as a case where you don't have to follow some rigid structure, albeit it takes someone with a unique perspective to make it interesting. Does this mean it's totally unique? No, it's not; we've seen depictions of American youth who have no ties to any family and have made their own familial unit in a f***ed up way, but Larry Clark and Harmony Korine seem more like the closest of kin. The Springbreakers analogy may not be totally fair, however, as the crimes done in the movie are mostly (if not all) done by the loose-cannon Jake, who may or may not use that gun that gets set up pretty early in the story. And unlike that film, the 'don't-give-a-motherf***' world these people are in is anchored by Arnold's attention to details, and that Star is someone that, if we can't exactly put ourselves into as far as the full-blown empathy goes, she serves as someone we can see this world through up to a point, and the camera is often looking at objects and things: the scenery, bugs, water, oil derricks, fire, etc etc.
I think the curious visual aspect, how she moves her camera, which can be at times as frenetic as a found footage movie and at other times, with its natural lighting and sense of a place that has weight and grit and raw energy of finding things in spur of the moments, carried me through a lot of American Honey, and it's a film that has a love for little details in the world. Yet the other problem comes that there's simply too much movie here, too much looseness. It's great to see someone who, I'm sure, exercised her final cut without even breaking a sweat, but there came some points where we're hanging just too long, scenes lagging to a point where I found myself saying "alright, Get on with it!" ala Monty Python. That's not a nuanced criticism, but it turned me sometimes into a cranky studio executive.
All this said, there are passages in this film that are as affecting and effective as any major drama this year and LaBeouf is better here than he's been in years, likely taking from the energy that's there with Lane and the other real people to get to the point where he creates his own persona and (as much as he can try) is simply there with everybody else. While I didn't love it, I applaud it and hold it up as an example of uncompromising American independent cinema in this decade (again from the magnificent A24 studio, like the Weinsteins in the 90's only better and keeping the independent spirit in a truer sense). 7.5/10