American Honey was a very specific kind of disappointment for me, a type of letdown I only ever seem to find in buzzed-about indie releases. For months, the critical narrative surrounding this film has been that it’s intensely divisive. Even the film’s trailer, with all of its Shia LaBeouf-with-a-rat-tail earnestness & musings on the joys of making money/getting turnt, promised a production that could elicit a strong love it or hate it reaction. I went into American Honey expecting intensity, so I was oddly disappointment when I mostly found it to be fairly okay. Normally, enjoying a movie on the whole, but not finding it to be too big of a deal would still be a totally worthwhile, even comfortable cinematic experience. With titles like American Honey, Gaspar Noe’s Love, and The Revenant, however, the expectation is to have an extreme reaction, positive or negative, and it’s kind of a bummer when they don’t deliver on the divisiveness promised by their reputations.
Part of the reason films like this are such a letdown when they’re only moderately enjoyable is that they require so much work from the audience’s end. American Honey is deliberately light on plot, yet stretches nearly three hours in length. Its squared-off aspect ratio and daydreamy tendency to get lost in traditional beauty detail like hair blowing in the wind & flowers waving off the side of the highway play more like a lengthy scroll through an Instagram account than a feature film. The movie asks you to hang out in a closed space with Shia LaBeouf for hours on end; while LaBeouf is actually serviceable at worst here, that’s still a lot to ask from some people in light of his James Franco x1000 Misunderstood Artist public persona. The film clears these potential hurdles with ease, avoiding a lot of eyeroll-worthy indie movie cheese with a decidedly laidback, candid tone. However, its overall effect of capturing the directionless drift of a never-ending road trip might not be worth the headache required to get on its wavelength. If you meet American Honey halfway to buy what it’s selling (magazines or otherwise), the best you can hope for is a warm, comfortable meandering through America’s dead spaces and a visit with the young ghosts who haunt them. It’s an enjoyable experience, but one with a hefty toll.
A van full of teenage castaways tour America selling magazine subscriptions door to door, parking lot to parking lot. Although they could not care less about the product they’re peddling, the operation is handled like a “legitimate” business. They have orientation rituals, meetings, big seller rewards, and a boss figure who stands to benefit the most from their sweat & persistence as they remain fixed in their economic standing. These are America’s throwaway kids, drifters. They hitchhike, sport dreadlocks, dumpster dive for raw chicken, self-medicate with a steady diet of bong rips & grain alcohol. In the film’s more unique moments it strives only to see the country through their eyes. Economic desperation drives them down dusty roads, through cheap motels, and hundreds of miles past the families who abandoned or abused them. In their words, they “explore America, party, a bunch of stuff. It’s cool.” In our eyes it’s not cool at all; it’s depressing. The movie attempts to construct a will-they-won’t-they romance between two of the kids (LaBeouf’s mostly-nude body being part of that bargain) and to find moments of intense physical & emotional vulnerability in its narrative tangents, but it can never fully escape its status as a delicate, laidback hangout film, with all of the underwhelming impact that distinction entails.
British director Andrea Arnold captured this downstream drift with just as loose of a battle plan as you’d expect. In her own first tour of America, she’s acting as a sort of explorer/partier herself, packing the van with real-life drifter kid non-actors, which makes for some truly effective moments of quiet devastation. Sometimes she can reach a little too far in her attempts to capture America’s spirit. Her camera’s strange fascination with the mechanical ritual of line-dancing makes for a bizarre moment of authentic detail, but we also get shots of wildflowers juxtaposed with the blood river runoffs of slaughterhouses that really test the resolve not to roll eyes & walk away. There’s a sort of sweet, childish sensuality in the physical flirtation that builds the central romance, but the entire courtship is sparked with the lovelorn pair making eyes to Rihanna singing “We fell in love in a hopeless place,” which is just about the least subtle music cue possible; and I’m saying that as someone who typically places no significant value on subtlety. When the kids are daydreaming & sing-shouting along to the same endless repetitions of songs by Kevin Gates, Juicy J, and the like, Arnold captures something convincingly true & brutally sad about these nomadic ragamuffins pursuing an eternal road trip to escape the inevitability of “real life.” When she starts peppering the scenario with loaded guns, stolen cars, and soul-shattering romance, the movie loses its footing a little and resembles something much more generic & familiar.
The overall result, then, is a mixed bag. American Honey winds up being enjoyable, but maybe not worth all of the trouble it takes to reap its smaller, more delicate benefits. Like I said, calling a film out for being merely enjoyable is a strange complaint to get hung up on, but I’m honestly jealous of the folks who had a strong reaction to it, either way that response swung. I wish I could call this film high art or low trash, but I instead find myself drifting between the two extremes, mumbling half-remembered rap lyrics to myself & hazily waiting for my next drink.