American Honey (2016)

This one made the usual rounds on the awards circuit and was highly praised by Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution. It’s interesting to note that its rating on Rotten Tomatoes however is decidedly average. After watching it, it’s easy to understand why as its flaws are obvious. Still I found this to be incredibly engaging and authentic film and think that most critics are underrating it.

Teen-aged girl Star takes care of two younger children, taking them dumpster diving and cooking for the family. She runs into a van full of boisterous youths and seems attracted to the leader of the group, Jake. He asks her to join them, offering a job in Kansas. When she gets home, we realize that the two younger children are probably her siblings. The mother is absent and the father is a layabout who contributes nothing and gropes her. She decides to leave the children with the mother, who is reluctant to take them, and seeks out Jake’s crew who turns out to be selling door to door magazine subscriptions. Everyone knows that no one really reads magazines these days so they rely on sob stories and persuasion to get people to sign up. The crew is run by a seemingly heartless woman named Krystal and Star is dismayed to see that Jake is completely submissive to her. Still, the crew seems to have plenty of fun and Star slowly learns how to sell and how to fit in.

American Honey seems to be most often compared to Spring Breakers and indeed the crew seems to live as if they were on a permanent spring break vacation, travelling to place to place and boisterously singing and teasing each other in the van. For my part, I’m reminded of the excellent Tangerine for its street-level view of America on the lives of the under-privileged. Having the characters being door to door salespeople makes for a great excuse to walk into all manner of houses and meet with all kinds of Americans. The scenes of her walking into the homes of the suburban poor, the so-called white trailer trash, like she herself, are especially hard-hitting as we see children being left to fend for themselves. Even when we see rich Americans, they’re very much not the coastal elites: Texas tycoons, well-paid blue-collar oil workers, the God-fearing middle-class and so forth. In short, this is solid Republican territory and it’s fascinating to watch this as a sort of exotic documentary on middle America.

Director Andrea Arnold is especially good about capturing the quiet little moments in between scenes, the smirk of a face as someone tells a joke, the swaying of one of the crew as they sing along to the songs they hear. These intimate shots and the natural pacing help sell the idea that these are real, authentic young people. It’s downright unbelievable that the lead actress Sasha Lane is not a professional actress at all but someone the director spotted on a beach and decided would fit the role perfectly. Apparently the remainder of the cast, with the obvious exception of Shia LaBoeuf as Jake, were similarly gathered from the streets, parking lots and so forth. This is the mark of a director who knows exactly what film she wants to make and what she needs to do it and she’s not even American but British!

The film’s biggest flaw is that the central relationship between Star and Jake is predictable and frankly not very interesting. As a road trip film with no fixed destination, this is also a film that leads to no real conclusion for any of the characters. Perhaps there’s something existential in not having any satisfactory resolution since these are all youngsters who are living in the moment and have no real idea of their path in life, but it’s also likely the director couldn’t think of anything better. In my case, the ending left me nonplussed and unimpressed. I’m also skeptical that despite all of their misadventures the crew never gets into any serious trouble. It seems that are identifiable enough to be easily tracked by the police and they certainly commit enough crimes that to be worth the attention.

Ending aside, I found this to be an eye-opening and enjoyable watch. It flows so naturally that you barely feel how long it is and though the characters would most likely be assholes if you ever met them in real life, this film lets you see enough of their lives to sympathize with them. Given the current state of politics in the US, it’s more important than ever to understand how the people in the American heartlands live and feel, and American Honey is a fantastic portrait of these people.

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