Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Arielle Holmes, Will Patton
Director: Andrea Arnold
Running time: 2 hours 42 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Andrea Arnold has a legitimate talent for combining naturalism with formalism, with Red Road, Fish Tank, and Wuthering Heights all displaying a tactile authenticity while still coming across stylistically bold. She also, incidentally, has a real knack for casting. Katie Jarvis, the young star of Fish Tank, for example, was discovered at a bus stop. With American Honey, she casts newcomer Sasha Lane as an 18-year-old wanderer named Star after finding her sunbathing on a beach. The rest, as they say, is a drug-induced white trash travelogue of wasted American youth.
Arnold is clearly fascinated by the stories of real-life "mag crews", wherein street kids are herded together in vans and travel across middle America trying to sell magazines door to door, but this fascination means she may have grown too close to her subjects (she actually traveled for months with her rag-tag group of mostly non-actors). Shooting in a box ratio with hand-held cameras and getting up close and personal with her cast, Arnold attempts a kind of poetic immersion into the headspace of her central character, but allows her determined formalism to overwhelm Star's emotional journey. A runaway with a tragic past, Star is a cipher for whom the audience grafts their own biases and experiences onto, and Lane's naturalism cannot be coaxed or forced. She is the real deal; a girl slowly maturing onscreen; and her subtle gestures, reactions, and wide-eyed exuberance gives the film its soul.
It's a shame, then, that Lane is trapped in such a self-indulgent picture which mistakes filmmaking looseness and aestheticized images of poverty for something approaching reality. A love story, of sorts, emerges with the arrival of Jake (Shia LaBeouf), an aggressively cocky salesman who teaches Star the ropes. Jake, too, is little more than a pawn; led around like a dog on a leash by the leader of the mag crew, Krystal (Riley Keough), a young woman who apparently has never seen a child labor law she couldn't exploit. Arnold's strengths at merging professional with non-actors backfires here, as both LaBeouf and Keough feel much too mannered, as if they are playing white trash dress up alongside actual street kids. Decked out with a Padawan braid and black suspenders, LaBeouf has a certain kind of deranged charisma, but his shtick feels contrived when placed alongside Lane, who doesn't even know how to play a false note.
If one is making a film examining a sub-culture which aims for reality as well as stylistic artistry, length can be a problem, and there is no reason beyond bludgeoning the audience about the horrors of white poverty, that this film should run a sprawling 162 minutes. Endless scenes of tailgate parties, drunken sing-alongs to Rihanna, and more than one incident involving Star in cringe-inducing situations with predatory males becomes numbing in their repetition. If Arnold's point is to show us the desensitizing lifestyle of boredom and monotony that these kids feel every day, she may have achieved her goal in epic fashion, but it still begs the question; what exactly is her film trying to communicate?
Some may argue that the film isn't trying to impart any overt message, but by the time Star emerges from the bottom of a lake, hair flinging dramatically in the air, its clear that there is indeed a self-liberation arc being imparted here. Of course, Lane's remarkable performance doesn't need tidy narrative beats or typical coming-of-age tropes, but she does deserve a more focused film; one that's less bombastic about its supposed authenticity and more attuned to one lost girl's story trapped inside the nightmarish landscape of Trump's America.