The latest film from Andrea Arnold, American Honey takes the aspects of social realism and absurdity that permeate British cinema and transposes them onto American soil in the form of a hedonistic road movie. With equal parts grit and fantasy, Arnold manages to create a film that dishes out thick layers of realism while simultaneously distancing itself from the real-life with its unrelenting dreaminess.
Despite being Arnold’s first film to be made outside of the UK, there are definite comparable elements with the rest of her filmography, particularly with Fish Tank (2009) and its endeavour to “give a voice” to the youth of Britain. In the same vein—and following the story of Star (Sasha Lane) in her decision to leave her life behind and follow a troupe of travelling magazine salespeople in their drug and alcohol fuelled tour of Midwestern America—American Honey strives towards giving a realistic representation of apathetic teenagers searching for a purpose amidst their marginalisation.
Stretching itself to a run-time of just under two hours and forty-five minutes; the film lays itself bare to the possibility of tedium throughout, as it constantly skirts the line of “this plot is a non-plot” through its meandering pace. In this respect, American Honey mimics films like Easy Rider (1969) in its ‘road-trip to nowhere’ sensibilities, relying heavily on its cinematography (courtesy of Arnold’s regular cinematographer Robbie Ryan) to offer up a scenic encapsulation of life on the road. Vast expanses of Midwest American countryside are shown in all their glory while maintaining a focus on the group of teenagers; with every frame bursting with a colour and vitality that counterbalances any sense that these characters are doomed to wander forever, and stresses their naive wonder at their constantly changing surroundings.
The sweeping camera works in sync with the film’s dense soundtrack (consisting of everything from Rihanna to Migos to Lady Antebellum), interrupting the drawn-out episodes of silence with its bombastic energy. American Honey is a film very much driven by music, especially when considered in terms of how it dictates the characters’ interactions with one another. With booming rap tracks accompanying their drug and alcohol fuelled van-rides, and self sung chants to fire them up before venturing out to make sales, the majority of the opportunities for character development to arise are cultivated by the music that permeates them.
In fact, other than Star, Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Krystal (Riley Keough), there isn’t much in the way of characterisation beyond these moments. Many of the characters are either interchangeable or simply forgettable, with only the more outlandish of their predictably unpredictable behaviour leaving any sort of lasting impression—one guy likes to whip his dick out at random moments, and one particularly apathetic girl sporadically comes out with angst-ridden spiels about Star Wars—which ultimately makes the dialogue appear faux-edgy. The majority of their activities happen as a group; with fireworks being let off in parking lots, dance-parties erupting in convenience stores, and mandatory fist-fights between the lowest earners becoming normal occurrences, which creates a resounding feeling that they are nothing more than an amalgamation of teenagers who’ve been stuck together to create a shallow microcosm of America’s restless youth.
This creates a problem for the film’s attempts to create plausibility within the narrative, as the group’s behaviour seems stuck in the antisocial (eventually branching out to petty theft from customers) with little to no consequence. Star’s exploits—including briefly disappearing with strange older men, engaging in prostitution, and engaging in unprotected sex—are reckless and impulsive, each with varying degrees of danger underpinning them, and yet in the grand scale of the film they never become anything more than vignettes along her journey. Nothing seems to be firmly rooted in reality. The grittiness is counterbalanced with a soft light that seems to simultaneously showcase and smooth out the blemishes of what’s being shown, derailing the realism, and dangling the events as futile strives towards an end goal.
Heavily punctuated with shots of animals (birds, bugs, and butterflies in particular) either struggling to take flight or coming to a resting point, the film’s closing segment is clouded with the feeling that if American Honey has any message to be found within itself, it’s that dreams are inherently out of reach.