Movie Review : American Honey (2016)
I have a chicken or egg question for you: are movies getting dumber every year or are audiences getting lazier and increasingly willing to settle for the lowest common denominator? I'm not trying to be smarter than you here. The answer is not obviously A or obviously B. I had never even heard of American Honey before my friend Frank suggested we go see it instead of Tom Cruise's latest Jack Reacher Crap-a-Ganza last week. The one where he hilariously threatens to beat a man to death with his own arm. I would've missed on a bold and crafty (and maybe a little self-involved) American movie, had I not stumbled upon it. Am I to blame for this? It is only a matter of time before we meet, Reacher. But I don't regret bailing out on you at all.
American Honey is, in a vacuum, a love story. Star (Sasha Lane) is a drifter looking for love in all the wrong places. She's shacking up with a strange, abusive guy for shelter, taking care of his children and (presumably) providing sexual favors in exchange. Fate come knocking one day, disguised as Jake (the now immortal Shia LaBeouf), a wholesome and carefree magazine salesman who offers her a life of unbridled adventure across the United States. Star decides to follow her heart like any sensible young woman would've and leaves her life behind to hit the road with Jake. The question that hovers over American Honey which the movie never really answers is: has Star traded up or set herself up for a bigger, more painful heartbreak?
This movie is obsessed with French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Theory of Natural Human. Human beings are being corrupted by society and can only find true happiness in a state of nature, where they can pursue their inner, wordless urges. Rousseau's ideas are all over American Honey. Star and Jake can only be together away from civilization. The first time they have raunchy, steamy sex, it's in a stolen car Jake drives so far into the wild it become overrun with grass and bugs. The second time, they lying in the grass in a nearby forest. Star and Jake's secret lover's code is a wolf howl. American Honey is also obsessed with naturalistic details. For example, it focuses on Star's tan marks during the first sex scene. Some guy in the sales crew keeps showing his dick to everybody (including the camera), prompting his co-workers to playfully beat him up to mock social conventions. American Honey rejects whatever idealized version of youth and love Hollywood offers today.
The best way I can describe American Honey in one sentence is: imagine that Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master was directed by Harmony Korine instead. While the title is indeed ironic, the movie doesn't openly reject grand narratives, in this case the American Dream. It rather questions it and doesn't even claim to provide a satisfying answer. This is perhaps best represented in the characters (and to some extent the movie's) relationship to music. It is never incidental. Star first decides to follow Jake because they make eye contact while Rihanna's "We Found Love" is blaring out in a K-Mart. We found loooove in a hopeless plaaaceee....Coincidence? I think not. Especially that the song plays again in the van later in the movie when the girls are about to "sell themselves" to oil workers. Following signs never leads Star anywhere she wants to be, but it never leads her anywhere precise. For as long as she seeks something, her grind will just keep going and going. Once again a very Rousseauesque idea. Star never accepts the world "as is". She lives inside her own head.
So, American Honey truly was a stimulating experience. It is an intelligent, well-spoken movie about young America's problematic relationship with idealism. It is also original. I don't think the film would've been of any interest if the lead protagonist was a young boy. It is a bit of an endurance run, though. The movie seems enamored with its own ideas at times and will repeat them over and over again. There are countless scenes of rowdy youth blaring out hip-hop in the sales van throughout the movie. More than there needs to be. While it became nagging once the film passed the two hour marks (it's almost three hours long), it never pissed me off. It might be a symptom of me being a good audience but I figured being smart, horny and full of yourself makes you exactly like a contemporary twenty year old, so director Andrea Arnold hit the mark somewhere.