Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal B. Ice, Verronikah Ezell, Chad McKenzie Cox, Garry Howell, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Raymond Coalson, Isaiah Stone, Dakota Powers, Shawna Rae Moseley
MPAA Rating: (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse-all involving teens)
Running Time: 2:43
Release Date: 9/30/16 (limited); 10/7/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 7, 2016
Being poor is terrible, argues American Honey, but at least there's plenty of music and dancing to ease the pain of it all. Writer/director Andrea Arnold's movie is another of those inherently dishonest stories that romanticizes poverty, even as it appears to be taking a hard and honest look at the condition of being impoverished.
The movie opens with Star (Sasha Lane, in a promising debut performance), an older teenager or just-turned young woman, digging through the garbage bin behind a grocery store. It's a treasure trove of just-expired perishables, and Star finds a chicken vacuum-sealed in plastic. She tosses it a young boy whose hands are too small to catch it. As Star, the boy, and his sister stand on the side of the road on a hot Oklahoma day, waiting for a passing motorist to answer Star's extended thumb, the juices of the chicken drain on the pavement.
We might think that it's the sign of a potential meal wasted. As soon as the three return to Star's apartment, though, the boy is stabbing at the chicken with a fork, trying to open the packaging so that the bird can be cooked for supper.
This sequence of events seems right, and it's telling that Arnold dismisses the portrait of the movie's early scenes along with the children, as Star leaves them with a dirty, line-dancing mother who continues her steps while arguing that she doesn't want her kids. In between the hitchhiking attempt and the return home, Star spots Jake (Shia LaBeouf), follows him inside a store, and engages in some shy flirtation with him in the parking lot. It's love at first sight for Star, and Jake, whose flirting style is more in-your-face, asks her if she wants a job.
The job is akin to the traveling salesmen of old. Jake manages a magazine subscription business (or, possibly, scam) run by Krystal (Riley Keough), whose business acumen is matched only by her dismissive attitude toward her employees. Whoever sells the least subscriptions at the end of a stop is beaten up by the other workers, and Krystal threatens to leave anyone who gives her problems on the side of the road.
Nobody buys magazines anymore, Jake explains to Star. Their job, then, is to sell themselves as a sob story or a potential tale of overcoming the oddsŚwhatever works to get some gullible person to pay for something they neither want nor need.
Jake and Krystal, of course, are selling their own line of B.S., although Star is na´ve enough to buy her instant-crush's line about the work being a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see America. In a way, that line is Arnold's thesis, too, as broad as it may be.
The details and rituals of the job having been explained, the movie proceeds to send Star, at first accompanied by Jake and later on her own, on sales trips across the Midwest and the South. She's skeptical of the business plan at first, since she finds dishonesty repellant, but grows into her role. We have to assume that whatever she tells a customer is the truth, and her story is a predictably sad oneŚno parents, moving from her home at a young age, finding no promise in and learning to expect nothing from life.
The potential customers are a batch of flawed people. A devoutly Christian woman scolds Star for swearing in her home but overlooks the sight of her daughter provocatively dancing just behind her. A trio of Texas good ol' boys tease Star and, with little pushback, try to get her drunk, although we can only infer their intentions on account of Jake coming to her rescue. A later scene involving an oil field worker has more explicitly sinister overtones, but even that encounter plays out with an emphasis on the awkwardness of the scenario.
Arnold never chastises Star's na´vetÚ when it comes to strangers. That's not to suggest the movie should, only that its own outlook on such matters is also a bit na´ve. It also might be to counteract the emotional toil of the character's relationship with Jake, which is punishment enough. At turns, he is sweet toward, desperate for, dismissive of, and becomes violently jealous on account of Star. To her credit, Arnold doesn't offer a judgment on Star for this relationship, since the movie's primary goal to examine the peculiar ways of how this group operates (The camerawork has the impromptu feel of a fly-on-the-wall documentary). Jake, though, seems like a character whose motives change, not because of some inner conflict, but because of a necessity to have some conflict within this story.
The movie rambles from one scene to the next, basically ignores the other characters on the sales trip (Each comes from a different part of the country, and that, apparently, is enough to define them), and inserts sing-alongs and dance scenes in lieu of any genuine insight into these characters or their status. American Honey paints with broad strokes of sometimes striking color. Its appeal is to the freedom and spiritedness of these characters' condition, and that ultimately comes across as a false sentiment.
Copyright ę 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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