American Honey is a long, aimless road trip of self-discovery. It begins with a lost, disadvantaged, impoverished young woman escaping a bad relationship by running away with a wild band of scrappy twentysomethings piling in an old van to travel the American mid- and southwest selling magazine subscriptions. It ends with her having a little bit more of an idea about what she wants to do with her life, but not so much more that there’s anything like a natural endpoint. The movie simply travels along as the group stops at different towns and cities, adding up to a portrait of a nation of juxtapositions and inequalities: rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old. British director Andrea Arnold has traversed similar territory before, albeit in a much more contained setting, in her small, powerful Fish Tank, about a teenage girl living in miserable London poverty. Here, though, Arnold expands her canvas, trying to take in a whole generation, a whole country with one massive, rambling journey. She’s in search of some overarching truth that remains out of reach.
It’s in the tradition of films that find acclaimed foreign directors making a movie about “America.” (Trace the history back further and you could draw a line to Alexis de Tocqueville.) On the one hand, there can be great observations made from an outsider’s perspective. On the other, there can be some clumsiness in what might be more a commentary on America as a symbolic place onto which filmmakers can project their own interests. Thinking of the great eccentric examples of cinematic exchange, like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, it’s clear the most fascinating cross-cultural USA pictures are those which are most obviously a director’s preoccupations and pet theme’s layered over a new landscape. In the case of American Honey an anthropological curiosity tips over into an indiscriminate eye, looking for beautiful squalor, indulging lengthy sequences of its characters milling about, and failing to filter its incidents into anything like a coherent statement. It’s a grab bag of worst-case scenario Americana: convenience stores, truck stops, cheap motels, Wal-Marts, shallow suburbs, dusty highways, dirty dumpsters, and anywhere motes and bugs flit in the air.
A protracted, lumpy journey, the scraggly band of young people drift from place to place, bouncing along to thumping hip hop and shooting the breeze as they travel empty roads through wide open spaces. The lead (newcomer Sasha Lane) is charmingly inscrutable, energetic and open to new experiences but containing an essential unknowable mystery. She draws in interest, but also holds her motivations at a beguiling remove. She’s always in the moment, but her eyes betray a mind that’s always in two places at once. Others in the troupe include a guy she has a crush on (Shia LaBeouf, looking unkempt and un-showered) and the icily alluring leader of the pack (Riley Keough). The rest are a jumble of interesting faces with wild, unpredictable behaviors and personalities that blur together. You’d think spending nearly three hours with characters would let you get to know them pretty well, but this movie is interested in poses and episodic encounters – hooking up, robbing, hitchhiking, dancing, scavenging – than exposition or exploration of what makes these people tick. When it’s time to get down to business, they go door-to-door hawking their wares, telling unconvincing sob stories and hardly looking like trustworthy salespeople. It’s never clear how anyone could be buying what they’re selling.
For a long stretch of American Honey, with its tire-spinning repetitive grind of incident and Arnold’s typically claustrophobic square-framed trashy/beautiful cinematography, I felt like I’d always been and always would be watching this movie. It feels endless, content to live, and wallow, with the pretty poverty of its hard-living characters. Feinting at honesty when it’s really aestheticized and empty, the film ogles at unwashed skin, desperate situations, crumbling lives as if its act of looking through pretty filmic lenses is equivalent to having something to say. When it’s compelling, losing itself in the makeshift tribal rituals of bouncing and chanting along to mantras and raps or in stealing away moments of fleeting joy in crushing pain and poverty, the actors bring excitement and convincing lived-in feeling to the proceedings. But when it’s at its clumsiest, it’s rootless and pointless, drifting along on borrowed observations and trite conclusions. This is an ode to a lost generation, to young people who are wandering doom- and debt-laden into a world where hope and possibility have been dried out in the wake of their elders. And yet it has no real sense of why that might be or how these characters feel about their plight. It’s as lost and unaware as they are, striking to look at but with little to say.