Andrea Arnold’s latest, American Honey, is a rambling, nearly three-hour travelogue, an On the Road for the millennial set. It may capture the no-fucks spirit of today’s disenfranchised youth, but it’s content to indulge and aestheticize their behaviors for empty displays of style. This is Arnold’s lower-class fetishism at its most vacuous and exploitative.
Maybe the root of the film’s failure is in the lack of a certain cultural perspective. Both the divisive Fish Tank and, strangely enough, Arnold’s baroque, modernist Wuthering Heights seemed to come from a very personal place, benefitting from their privileged knowledge of quintessentially English classism. Those films were also elevated by well-defined plot structures, ones that organized, even justified the filmmaker’s worst impulses in the context of clearly defined character progressions. American Honey, in contrast, suffers from both the sense that Arnold hasn’t given much of any thought to the cultural systems in place in America that perpetuate our shameful poverty state and from its shapeless, uncentered excess as a narrative.
But American Honey goes wrong as early as the unconvincing introduction to its two star-crossed lovers: Star (Sasha Lane), a self-assured 18-year-old who’s left to raise two siblings after her mom split, and Jake (Shia LaBeouf), whom Star spots in a passing van, instantly falls for, and follows into a Walmart. There, Jake and his buddies dance on the checkout registers to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” and Star looks on in love-struck amazement. It’s a facile sequence because it never feels like a depiction of a millennial’s naturally blossoming infatuation, but rather a calculating filmmaker’s overworked approximation of that experience. And this false-feeling impression of the characters’ romance lingers over the remainder of the film.
The film gets on the road fast: One meeting is all it takes to convince Star to drop off her brother and sister with her deadbeat mom and take a flier on Jake’s proposed job as a door-to-door magazine salesman—a weirdly dated occupation for a film that time-stamps itself with a shout-out to a 2015 Big Sean single. Jake’s group is set to travel from Texas up to Kansas City, and then on through various destinations in the Midwest.
Arnold briefly expands out from her two deterministic lovers for a lengthy introduction to the van’s remaining passengers, the other lost youths Jake’s recruited for his burgeoning industry, but then promptly sidelines all of them in favor of chronicling Star’s repeated, ill-advised attempts to make money any which way she can: drinking hard liquor with old white cowboys; spending an evening with an oil worker in his truck. Sometimes Jake is around to help, sometimes Star is left to her own devices; sometimes Star and Jake fight, sometimes they fuck. Generally, they’re both lost people and Arnold shows basically no interest in exploring their condition.
An early scene finds Star breaking down into tears when embraced by a Sam Hunt-singing boyfriend, and resonates with the impressions of domestic psychological abuse often daringly explored in Fish Tank. But it’s just about the most we ever learn about her. Arnold also continues to indulge in painfully callow visual metaphors, which are here not only heavy-handed, but also largely unmotivated: Star saving bugs in jars, playing with flying squirrels, and gazing at horses feels less like a likely attribute of her prickly character than just a prerequisite to being an Andrea Arnold protagonist.
American Honey does possess some magnetism as a purely sensorial work. Arnold’s burnished and sun-dappled small-town America, and the spirited-away teenage bodies that vibrate across it, have a draw that transcends the definition of her characters or their limited psychologies. Likewise, the collage of contemporary rap, country, and pop hits used to score the eclectic American scenery give a cumulative sense of the country’s multiculturalism, and occasionally even transform the film into a kind of covert musical. At maybe half or a quarter of the length, American Honey might’ve gotten by on this surface-level vision; at all three hours of it, it’s just an exhausting folly.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.