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Review: American Honey (2016)

American Honey (2016)

Directed by: Andrea Arnold

Premise: A young woman (Sasha Lane) with nothing to tie her down joins a troupe of other young people traveling the country and selling magazine subscriptions.

What Works: In 1969, the film Easy Rider revolutionized American cinema with its story of motorcyclists traveling across the country. Dennis Hopper’s film rejected the canned plot structures of Hollywood movies and was made in a handheld cinema verite style; Easy Rider subsequently became one of the defining films of its generation. 2016’s American Honey did not have the impact of Easy Rider but the movie is worthy of comparison in more than a few ways. Like the 1969 film, American Honey is about young people living on the outskirts of respectable society. Easy Rider was a movie of its cultural moment and so is American Honey. The former was made during the countercultural movement of the 1960s while the latter was made in the wake of the Great Recession. And just as Easy Rider was an earnest portrayal and critique of the counterculture, American Honey captures poverty and people living in it in a way that few films have. That, above all, is the most extraordinary thing about American Honey. There is nothing pretentious about this movie. It doesn’t seek to wag a finger at the audience nor does it extol the supposed virtues of living on the poverty line. This is a slice of life picture that portrays a class of people who are typically invisible in American cinema and it allows them depth and complexity. American Honey is led by Sasha Lane as a young woman who joins this troupe of entrepreneurs. Lane is terrific, conveying a lot through the nonverbal aspects of her performance. Right from its opening, American Honey provides the ethical complexity that defines the characters and the film itself. Lane’s character is charged with taking care of two young children of neglectful parents. When she’s offered a chance to join the magazine selling crew, Lane’s character bails on the kids for the promise of adventure and economic opportunity. The rightness or wrongness of her decision is not immediately obvious and this ambiguity characterizes American Honey. The magazine troupe is led by a young woman played by Riley Keough. Her character is tough and manipulative but also business savvy and intimidating enough to keep this herd of strays together. Her assistant is a young man played by Shia LaBeouf who is quite good in a role that is far departed from anything else LaBeouf has played. The rest of the cast is utterly convincing as a cabal runaways who have found their way into this group. The movie captures the flavor of their subculture and of life on the road in a way that has tremendous authenticity.

What Doesn’t: At two hours and forty-three minutes, American Honey runs a little long. The movie’s length is partly due to its naturalistic style. Sequences aren’t written to hurry along the plot or streamline the action the way that they are in most dramatic films. And the languid pace of the movie is in keeping with the aimless lives of the young people in this film. Nevertheless, American Honey feels its length. That’s partly because the plot beats and decisive character moments are few and far between. The movie would have benefitted from some additional editing or a more active plot. The cinema verite style of American Honey is offset by some of the casting decisions, namely Shia LaBeouf as Jake. After his turns in the Transformers movies and other Hollywood blockbusters, LaBeouf is a recognizable movie star and he seems out of place among the cast of unknown and amateur actors. He does a good job in the role but LaBeouf is too recognizable an actor for the style of this movie.

DVD extras: Interviews.

Bottom Line: American Honey represents for the millennial audience much of what Easy Rider did for the Baby Boomer generation. The film is a fascinating portrait of life at this particular time and despite its length there is a lot to admire about it. 

Episode: #673 (November 5, 2017)