Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a sprawling, often earthily gorgeous coming of age tale that isn’t afraid to get blunt in the name of beauty. It is also a shaggy, inconsistent one, in which indulgence is both its subject and primary flaw.
18-year old Star finds herself in the company of youth just like her – aimless, wandering, poor and lost – and they journey through this small part of their lives as a temporary family. One of the ways that American Honey is so insightful is that it understands the ways these kind of families work – not as a harmonious, understanding whole, but a warring, energetic mosh pit of familiar faces. And so Arnold fills the film with a distinct sense of tribalism. Again and again, these kids gather around a fire and sing the same songs, dance the same dance, and physically fight the same fights. This is repetition, this is ritual, this is a collective memory that will blur and create a sense of gradual growth in person, rather than small steps.
Arnold uses this backdrop as the foundation for a well observed coming of age story. As Star grows as a person (with the help of a tortured relationship with a fantastic Shia Labeouf) she grows into a greater sense of transience, already looking back on her adolescence as a piece of her that was never permanent. A damaged aspect that she can exist beyond.
And on the macro level of that milieu and basic story, Arnold’s film soars. Where I found significant issues, and ones that pulled me out of the work, were in her formal shagginess and inconsistent characterisation.
Talking too much about the characterisation would require me to spoil a few scenes, so all I’ll say there is that Star’s behaviour seemingly requires a ton of contradictory psychology, especially towards the end of the middle 3rd. I recognise that the reasons Star does everything she does are not even necessarily clear to her, but the way she goes about any given stressful situation seems to change from second to second.
But a greater issue than that is Arnold’s indulgence. I’m not saying the film is too long, exactly. I think basically every scene works and justifies itself. but I found the editing to be so goddamn hesitant, holding moments so much longer than necessary, perhaps hoping for a certain lingering essence to seep out of the frame but instead simply diluting the power of any given beat. Early on, this creates a sense of, and excuse the phrase, but poverty porn, as Arnold rubs the audience’s faces in the economic situation of her protagonist, seemingly getting a kick out of showing us the misery. It feels disingenuous, not because it’s blunt (I actually found the bluntness of the film rather powerful and pure) but because it feels exploitative and condescending. Later, Arnold’s lingering is less insidious, but it still feels like a pull to every punch (especially in the last scene).
Finally, the use of nearly wall-to-wall music, often diegetic, I found completely alienating. I can’t exactly say it was the wrong decision, because I am sure there is a purpose behind it, but, for the life of me, I cannot figure it out. Having one popular song end and then starting up another a few seconds later completely threw me out of the film. I’m searching for a reason for this, and no doubt I’ll find one eventually, but right now I’m baffled.
There is an amazing, beautiful film buried in American Honey, but it needs a couple of shaves before I’ll be able to see it.