With every new Shia LaBeouf movie, I wonder whether it would be more entertaining to see the film or watch LaBeouf as he watches it. American Honey wasn’t on the bill when the former Transformers actor did a masochistic marathon of his filmography, but if he were to do another, this punishing and monotonous 165 minute-movie might be the one to make him snap.
LaBeouf plays a James Franco-lite in the film, and director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) also seems to be emulating Spring Breakers’ Harmony Korine. In many ways, American Honey is like Gummo without the absurdist humor and Spring Breakers without the hallucinatory lyricism. It’s Kids for the post-subprime mortgage crisis generation.
Along with films like The Bling Ring, Dope, and Spring Breakers, there have been quite a few recent movies that use teenagers as a means to interrogate American capitalism – who it’s for, what motivation lies at the heart of it, and whether its promises hold true. Modern American teenagers have grown up with pubescent and national angst. Films that use teenagers to consider personal and national identity aren’t new; James Dean defined a counter-cultural movement in 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause. What’s changed in the last sixty years though is our worldview. The gloss and charisma of Dean’s Jim Stark has been totally effaced.
In the opening scene of American Honey, we meet Star (Sasha Stone) as she sifts through a dumpster of soiled food. Her parents have left her. She lives with a middle-aged drunk. At the supermarket, Star runs in to Jake (LaBeouf), charismatic and handsome in an edgy way, who recruits her into his business. Along with a group of destitute teenagers, Star heads on the road selling magazine subscriptions as a part of a pyramid scheme.
All the teenagers in American Honey are motivated by distrust. They sell with lies and justify their actions with a self-righteous Robin Hood-like mentality. Passing through Midwest highways, upper class developments, hillbilly bars, mucky oil fields and small town slums, each stop is meant to represent an aspect of Americana. But almost every episode in this 162 minute would-be epic is a collection of the same scenes but repackaged into different settings and situations. The group parties, sells magazines, steal and end their days with tribal traditions. The characters are despicable and insufferable, but worse yet, interchangeable and not particularly interesting.
We get the sense that the film is meant to be a twisted fairy tale. Star Wars and The Wizard Of Oz, the confederacy and Westerns are all alluded to. But American Honey wants to be a gritty slice of American life and a fantastical mood piece. It’s an odd mix of hand held camerawork and highly saturated colors, of verité-style editing and impressionistic montages. The film lands in a chasm between the two: it’s too sensationalized to be realistic and too bogged down by its grittiness to be otherworldly.
Arnold, a British filmmaker, understands very little about American life. The various settings and characters that represent aspects of American society are simplified. Star’s abusive boyfriend is stereotypical white trash and the wealthy developers she encounters are two-dimensional hedonists. There’s an ugly condescension to the film. It’s judgemental and doesn’t try to understand. All of its characters are flattened to egregious and simplified archetypes. Other than a believable but blank performance from the film’s lead, newcomer Sasha Stone, perceptive observations are rare. Almost everything has explored in greater detail or with deeper feeling in better films. Even with the voice of Shia LaBeouef yelling “Just do it!” in the back of my mind, it was hard to get excited about anything in American Honey.
Redundant, far too long and stylistically misconceived, American Honey is a disappointing turn for Andrea Arnold and another bad movie from Shia LaBeouf.