Review: American Honey (2016)

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American Honey (2016)

Directed by: Andrea Arnold | 158 minutes | drama | Actors: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal Ice, Veronica Ezell, Chad Cox, Garry Howell, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Raymond Coalson, Isaiah Stone, Dakota Powers, Shawna Rae Moseley, Christopher David Wright, Summer Hunsaker, Brody Hunsaker, Johnny Pierce II, Chasity Hunsaker, Michael Hunsaker, Kaylin Mally, Laura Kirk, Will Patton, Daran Shinn, Sam Williamson, Bruce Gregory

British director Andrea Arnold has gradually built up an impressive body of work. In 2006 she made a big impression with the haunting ‘Red Road’ and three years later she garnered much praise with ‘Fish Tank’. Arnold won the Jury Prize with her first two films at the Cannes Film Festival, a success she equaled last year with ‘American Honey’. With her latest film, she thematically moves into comparable waters, once again focusing on social misfits. ‘American Honey’ can be described as a road movie and coming-of-age story that provides a casual glimpse into poverty-torn modern America.

The film discusses the fate of Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) who tries to escape her predicament by joining a motley crew of street vendors. Led by the cold-hearted Krystal (Riley Keough), the ensemble criss-cross America, buying up all kinds of magazine subscriptions. The eccentric group easily takes in outsiders, but people are also rejected just as easily. If sales lag, Star soon finds it being ruthlessly punished by Krystal. Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is constantly in the wake of the boss. A difficult triangular relationship gradually develops, which is constantly under high tension. As Star and Jake draw closer to each other, the situation can only escalate…

‘American Honey’ is a sensory work that tries to take the viewer on an adventure in the story and image. Arnold is once again working with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who did an outstanding job with the film. The film is bathed in light and with the dominating sepia tones it has a beautiful dreaminess as a result. The amazing soundtrack also provides dynamic support to the image. The cast’s performances are also very solid, especially considering that Arnold often worked with non-professional actors for the project.

Yet the direction is at times too ambitious. The playing time of two and three quarters of an hour alone is far too long and repetitive. More worrisome, however, is the lack of authenticity. Thematically and stylistically the film can be compared reasonably well with earlier work by enfant-terrible Harmony Korine, such as his film ‘Gummo’ (1999). Where ‘Gummo’ leaves a quirky and effortless impression, ‘American Honey’ feels a bit too schematic. Arnold tries to create a realism that feels quite forced. Dialogues are often messy and more annoying than authentic. ‘Gummo’ gave us a wealth of bizarre characters while at the same time offering a glimpse into poverty-torn Tennessee of the 90s. ‘American Honey’ has a similar ambition, it seems. The film jumps effortlessly through various areas in the US – from Oklahoma to North Dakota – and tries to show the ill effects of ‘the American dream’. An ambition that, like the film itself, does not quite get off the ground.

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