American Honey is a vibrant mashup of a coming-of-age road movie and a smut film, blending shock value with a unique emotional experience.
The film follows Star (Sasha Lane), a late teenager in a bad situation. She happens across a traveling magazine sales pyramid scheme in a K Mart parking lot and becomes enamored with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who invites her to join them. Star ditches her boyfriend’s children with their mother and runs off to join the circus. American Honey is the meandering, three-hour long story of her adventures traveling across the rural Midwest.
American Honey is a different kind of story and a different kind of movie. Historically, we praise control in filmmaking. Many of the consensus best directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, are all legendary control freaks. Writer/director Andrea Arnold, by contrast, doesn’t seem to be exercising any control over American Honey at all. Not only is the plot as aimless as its characters, but so is the camera, which wanders randomly across the frame — with a consistently tiny aperture that causes the focus to be narrow and erratic to boot.
The story’s listlessness is exacerbated by a bananas 163 minute runtime. The average length of movies has been increasing consistently pretty much since they became a thing, but this is still an extra 40 minutes in a movie that already feels long because the plot never advances. This isn’t a story as much as it is a sprawling epic in line with Lord of the Rings or the more recent Wolf of Wall Street, something designed to exhaust and overwhelm.
This isn’t a movie about any kind of craftwork, it’s a movie about a feeling. The feeling of being born into a world that’s already ruined. It’s a movie about setting out to build a better life only to realize there’s nowhere left to do it, about learning that the best time to be alive is actually long past.
This subject matter has been tackled before by two movies I much prefer — last year’s horror phenomenon It Follows and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, both of which use Detroit as a symbol of American decay in the late ’00s and early ’10s.
In addition to sharing common themes with these movies, American Honey also shares a common motif, and this is maybe the only thing resembling a pattern in the movie — trash. Cinema has made its way through the years as an escape to fantastic worlds where everyday problems aren’t a concern, and one of the most consistent problems with escapist space adventures or superhero movies is making the world seem lived in, like it has its own history and its own day-to-day problems and its own refuse. Seriously — watch a big popcorn movie of any kind and count the times waste generation becomes an issue, even in the background.
Where in most movies creating the illusion is a hurdle to overcome, this trio of films are expressly about the fact that their worlds have been lived in. Where trash is mostly absent in movies as a whole, they delight in showing evidence of the collapsing world, be it the crumbling buildings or the discarded packaging of some TV dinner.
But where its contemporaries focus on characters used to being well-off who are confronted with a harsher world than they were prepared for, American Honey takes the theme a step further, centering on not just trash, but white trash.
The movie is inhabited by high school dropouts and decorated with Confederate flags and public sex — which also frequents as an intimidation tool. It’s set in trailer parks and shady motels and undeveloped lots. When the company gets to sell in an upscale neighborhood, it’s a big deal, and even then it’s a neighborhood filled with oil men or Bible-thumping housewives.
But even as the film couches itself in listlessness, economic oppression and the culture that forms around it, American Honey also couches itself in vivid scenes of life and some of the most graphic love sequences I’ve ever seen. As much as it is about hopelessness, it’s about making the best of a hopeless situation. It’s about perseverance and falling violently in love. It’s about finding ways to enjoy making the time pass.
This is a movie about a culture, in the tradition of The Graduate or American Graffiti or this decade’s The Social Network. It’s a movie about what it means to be alive right now in this America, to be pushed into this awkward place on Maslow’s Hierarchy of continual, inescapable obsession with sex despite widespread poverty, disintegrating infrastructure and a backward political system.
It’s a three-hour long Shia LaBeouf movie, and I get that, but see it if you can. It’s an unforgettable film that could well be hailed as a landmark in a few year’s time.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, intern at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.