American Honey

American Honey ★★★


Commenting on Brillante Mendoza's film Service, Mike D'Angelo made a drive-by assessment that keep crossing my mind while watching American Honey: "Here's an environment. Do you like my environment? Immerse yourself in the environment I offer you. That is all." It's not just that Arnold and her massive young cast of semi-professionals and mid-twenties Method drifters are taking the road movie concept to a shambolic extreme.

There's virtually no plot to speak of, only character, most of which emerges through episode and anecdote. And when Honey is not focusing on the dynamics (such as they are) among its designated lust triangle, we are thrust into the teeming mob, with individuals who are only nominally differentiated (the girls more so than the boys, apart from the boy who is constantly whipping out his junk). These mostly poor kids, who left home to get in the van and drink, smoke, party, and (somehow find the time to) go door to door selling magazine subscriptions, are continually herded into a "team," through meetings, chants, the aforementioned partying, and some playful violence meant to "motivate" the lowest sellers. This is truly a millennial party van: a space where you don't follow Phish or try to make your way to an intentional community. Capitalism is simply assumed; it's the epistemological given.

So very little happens to make this environment unique, or to allow anything to meaningfully emerge from its general din. Nothing, that is, except for newcomer Star (Sasha Lane), the self-possessed and skeptical young woman who meets the crew by chance and sees this as a way to start life over, away from her trashy aunt and the cousins whom she loves but, if she remains, will be forced to raise. Star is well-liked by everyone except surly, aloof "boss lady" Krystal (Riley Keough in full Southern trash mode), who sees her as a disruption of the group dynamic. (It's an indication of Arnold's thinking here, I think, that Krystal's name is spelled like the Southern "slider" chain.)

Then there's Shia LaBeouf as Jake, Krystal's kept man and the Lothario of the group, who has perhaps unwisely taken as shine (a twinkle?) to Star. This results in the only real activity in American Honey that can be isolated from environment and mood. Star blows a promising sale for Jake out of misplaced pride. Star hooks up with some urban cowboys for a barbecue and Jake pulls a gun. Krystal humiliates Star for caring about Jake, etc. The rest of the film is really just an extended hangout in a milieu that actually exists and clearly fascinated Arnold, a director whose work has always striven to zero in on the experiences of young women.

I should say, I have never really liked any of Andrea Arnold's films. With that said, American Honey mostly charmed me because of its build-in paradox. The grandiose title (taken from a Lady Antebellum song), together with the sprawling running time, imply a major statement, one that defines not only the Zeitgeist but serves as a summative gesture for the filmmaker. American Honey comes on like Arnold's Zabriskie Point, or at the very least her Somewhere.

The fact that it is never less than watchable but ultimately empty is rather to its credit. Sasha Lane is petulant, but not a major new discovery. The film and its characters have little so say about America, other than "we are here." It's a statement for an era and a generation that fakes confidence while being scared shitless about the ground they don't have to stand on. With his most promising customers, Jake offers an admission of half-truth: "It's not about the magazines. You're investing in me." And Andrea Arnold is investing in a future that exists solely as a string of disconnected presents.

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