Writer/director Andrea Arnold, perhaps best known for her excellent, gritty coming-of-age tale FISH TANK (2009), at last assumes the challenging role of the outsider for her latest musing on contemporary youth culture, and first feature not made in her homeland of the United Kingdom, AMERICAN HONEY. In keeping consistent with her past endeavors, it’s a tale of transcendence first and foremost, filled with characters who never fail to create their own problems and have bigger dreams than they’re individually capable of fulfilling.
What immediately makes this one stand out is its sprawling length; where Arnold’s past films just a few minutes over two hours long, her latest clocks in at just a little under three. The sparseness of the narrative is sure to turn a couple heads in regards to this.
We open on the young, spirited Star (Sasha Lane) rummaging through the garbage along with her two younger siblings. On their way home, a van filled with similarly young individuals passes by and Star follows the group into the local supermarket. She is drawn to one of them in particular, a sleazy though moderately well dressed young man by the name of Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who offers her a job driving across the Midwest with the group, selling magazines door to door.
As far as action is concerned, that is the film in a nutshell. The intention is to fill the time in between traditional narrative progression with all varieties of meticulously captured hedonism. The group that Star joins is a rowdy one, and one which is united in its waywardness. There’s a surface-level beauty to this alone, just being able to watch these people be themselves while shacked up on the road together; however, it’s not quite enough to sustain the sprawling scope of the piece.
Comparisons could be drawn to another filmmaker obsessed with the celluloid sins of youth, the notorious Harmony Korine (GUMMO, SPRING BREAKERS), but the rough edges that define Korine’s work and allow one to forge a genuine emotional connection with his often shocking material are absent, and let’s face it, all we gain here is a mostly repetitive and predictable aesthetic, with not a single cast member being safe from Arnold’s voyeuristic deep focus. It’s still beautifully lensed, but when scraped of any kind of real grime, it’s a bit of a hollow shell.
Yet another miscalculation is the film’s use of symbolism. It’s not worth getting into in too much depth, but let’s just say that most transitional shots are of nearby insects and that this is the kind of film where people mean what they say and say what they mean. While it may be somewhat self-aware, the realism isn’t nearly as uncomfortable as it wants to be and the whimsy feels simply conflicting alongside it, and in the end this is all about nothing more than the base pleasures. Coming from an established, visionary visual artist who has impressed in the past, this is simultaneously slight and overstuffed. Not the most balanced or desirable of combos.