Not unlike a rodeo, a wrestling match, a demolition derby, or a town parade, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey assumes bombast as a virtue unto itself. Anyone who’s ever complained about aestheticized poverty on a movie screen will get their dander up within seconds of exposure to Arnold’s latest, a drugged-out travelogue of the U.S.’s psychic interior as discovered by 18-year-old wanderer Star (newcomer Sasha Lane).
Star joins a traveling door-to-door “magazine crew” ostensibly headed by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), an alpha male sporting the inexplicable combination of black suspenders and a very long Padawan braid, after a chance encounter at K-Mart, where he woos her with an impromptu dance performance to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love.” All this is within American Honey’s first 20 minutes, which also include a square-dance sequence performed with mechanized despondency by a coterie of middle-agers, and a brief glimpse at a quartet of pre-teenage girls grinding to Tinashe while one of their mothers intones to Star and Jake with a straight face: “I can see the devil has a hold on you.” The camera has a field day clocking these grotesqueries in its summary depiction of this America, where every last sip of beer is a full-body chug and nobody is ever too drunk or high to mess up on the job.
After the film premiered at Cannes, Arnold explained she was fascinated by the real-life “mag crews” encountered in the South, and specifically the notion that these kids weren’t really pushing magazines so much as themselves—the stuff of a beguiling subtext, maybe, were it not explicitly enunciated by Jake in his training spiel. Knocking on strangers’ doors, Star and Jake fumble through telling them about made-up magazine drives intended to help raise money for what LaBeouf pronounces with a too-legible twang, “im-poverished youth.”
Star is essentially a wide-eyed cipher for the audience to bear witness to Arnold’s set pieces, the majority of which are basically depictions of tailgate parties in the parking lots where the crew spends their off time, lorded over by Krystal (Riley Keough), the sizzurp-addled queen bee of the whole operation. In another of the film’s clanging unsubtleties, Krystal punishes Star for sluggish sales by forcing her to watch as Jake rubs her down in body lotion while Juicy J’s “Bounce It” blares from the motel stereo, dismissing the new girl just before the presumed boss-employee hate-fuck.
Arnold’s prior work has been high-concept while too direct in its camera language to be considered structuralist, the lens typically hovering within inches of actors’ faces—inviting moviegoers to consider the characters’ perspectives, using the screen as a sharp line of separation. Her 2011 adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights made Heathcliff both black and essentially mute, anchoring emotional presence, if not the entire frame itself, with her leading man while inviting the viewer to quietly weigh Heathcliff’s sensory impressions against their own.
Working again with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Arnold’s signature tactility gets an even more thorough testing here: The filmmaker deploys her customary handheld 1:37 frame that seems to move entirely at will, shrinking and expanding with Star’s headspace to make her look alternatingly tiny and statuesque. Arnold’s knack for making written dialogue feel like spontaneous riffing—or is it the other way around?—reaches its climax in the lopsided courtship of Jake and Star, whose ups and downs at the hands of would-be rapists (emotional or otherwise) in this callous frontier make for a coming-of-age tale that’s decidedly miserablist. (This is all the more curious given the supposed rapture of self-liberation with which A24 is packaging American Honey, playing down the implicit irony of an American dream as embodied by indentured teenagers who have all left their nonexistent families.)
Star is performed with an unfakeable dynamism, but then this is a heroine who’s probably better cast than she’s written; the film’s emotional exhibitionism belongs to the director, not the actors. The vision of the United States as post-capitalist Pleasure Island is extensive, but this is an American culture shackled to the present moment with no concept of history behind it or future-dream ahead, just as much a criticism as an easy out from narrative accountability. The film’s class distinctions are too warped by the lust for saturated colors and daunting landscapes to add up to anything remotely resembling an analysis with skin in the game; the image of a dazed little girl singing the Dead Kennedys’s “I Kill Children” while her strung-out mother desiccates on the couch is, presumably, intended to harrow for itself.
This is a patchwork dystopia of white poverty whose facets are difficult both to deny and to prove exist precisely as depicted. Whether it’s during the inevitable music-montage catharsis that allows Star to see her surrounding ensemble as the kids they are or LeBeouf’s performance, American Honey’s power will wane according to how many times you’ve heard this song before.