CLTure Quick Hit: American Honey

Without Purpose, Youth in Revolt Loses Its Luster

By Douglas Davidson

CLTure Quick Hits are brief reviews of films in limited Charlotte release, the kind of movies that can be hard to spot through the wall of “event” movies churned out by Hollywood throughout the year. Be sure to hit these movies quickly, as their stay in theaters tends to be shorter than the blockbusters.

Writer/director Andrea Arnold‘s American Honey is lavishly decadent in its depiction of a group of teens who travel the country selling magazines door-to-door during the day and partying hard at night. Our entrance into the story is Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), the oldest of three who spends her days dumpster diving for food until she bumps into Jake (a charismatic Shia LaBeouf) and his van full of misfits. Immediately, Jake offers her a job with his crew, setting into motion a story that is equal parts captivating and purposeless.

Sasha Lane as “Star” in American Honey. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The successful parts of American Honey are multi-faceted. Arnold amassed a cast of mostly unknowns to fill every part in the picture, with the exceptions of LaBeouf, Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road/Magic Mike) as group leader Krystal, and Will Patton (Falling Skies/Remember the Titans) as Backseat Cowboy. By casting unknowns, there’s a tangible aura of innocence that hovers over the characters, infusing the scenes with extra emotional weight, whether joyful or heartbreaking. Arnold keeps the focus on Star and her perspective of everything, only exposing the audience to what she sees and hears.

This narrative style combined with the technical technique of 4:3 standard ratio creates an enormous void of information, forcing the audience to make the same inferences about the plot as Star does. Additionally, Arnold implants a naturalistic, almost tribal, feel to everything the crew does. Each member comes from a different place, yet gets accepted immediately as one of their own. They each get a chance to pick the music, yet the songs they favor are sung in near unison, eliciting a group-like chant. When the end of a week comes, the two lowest earners brawl– not out of a desire to hurt– but because those are the rules of crew: you earn or you fight. On the whole, American Honey is filled with realistic depictions of lost youth banding together to create a family for themselves.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Unfortunately, where American Honey falters is in the narrative. Throughout the film, characters constantly speak about consequence, how they’re escaping from something else, and how their actions have impact. Yet Star’s actions are without consequences, leading to a conclusion that is as ambiguous as it is dissatisfying. Star’s journey is without purpose, which seems to be the exact opposite of Arnold’s clear intention in depicting Krystal and the road crew.

Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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