Andrea Arnold is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I love the world of magazine selling misfits she explores in American Honey…but I didn’t need to see nearly three hours of it.
My God. Three. Hours.
160 minutes is way too much time to spend with a film that makes the stylistic choice to, essentially, repeat the same things over and over again. How many times do we need to see teenagers partying outside their van? How many times do we need to see teenagers partying inside their van? How many times do we need to see Shia LaBeouf’s sad rattail droop as his emotionally unstable character finds himself?
For its first 90 minutes, American Honey is an original film that covers a lot of new ground before it gets stuck retracing its steps. The film follows Star (Sasha Lane), a teenager who abandons her troubled home after serendipitously running into a crew of homeless youths who get by selling off-brand magazines. The crew travels back and forth across the Midwest in a van, using the little money they make to pay for drugs, alcohol, and partying. At times, American Honey feels like it’s taking cues from the best parts of The Wolf of Wall Street and Beasts of the Southern Wild. The first half of American Honey introduces a vibrant take on a unique world with an essence that probably could have been better realized with a much shorter film.
The second half of American Honey is when the film begins to repeat itself like a shot-for-shot remake of the first half. The same partying and road trip scenes that made the first half of the film such an experience are presented again, almost exactly the same, only they lose steam the second time around. Jake (LaBeouf), another crewmember, even seems to repeat his character arc twice, ending on a much duller note the second time.
There is no real plot to speak of in American Honey, and the decision to be repetitive appears intentional. That doesn’t mean it isn’t tedious. Doing a sort of storytelling loop is a bold move, provided there is a pay off with something interesting or insightful. American Honey is not outright bad, but it is somewhat disappointing after such a promising start. Early on, I might have told you I was watching one of Arnold’s best films. I’m glad I waited to see the rest.
Except for the storytelling loop, other risks in American Honey do pay off a bit. Arnold adjusted the ratio to bring the sides of the image closer together and just about every frame is filmed in close-up, creating a visual aesthetic that I’ve never quite seen before. The choice itself to explore such an odd world paid off big, for a while… I guess I just wish Arnold avoided giving us too much of a good thing.
Grade = B-