FILM REVIEW: American Honey (2016)

The Verse’s Oliver Pendlington reviews American Honey, starring Shia LaBeouf and Sasha Lane in this coming-of-age story that’s drawn comparisons to Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.

Director: Andrea Arnold
Screenplay: Andrea Arnold
Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Arielle Holmes
Plot: Tired of her poverty-stricken home and life, teenager Star (Lane) joins a travelling magazine sales crew on a journey across Midwest America. She soon starts falling for their top salesman Jake (LaBeouf) as she strives to become part of the crew.

American Honey can best be viewed as two different stories: a coming-of-age road trip wrapped around a bittersweet love/hate affection for the American Dream. British director and screenwriter Andrea Arnold clearly wants viewers to take in both of these thoughts through the perspective of her main heroine. Played by newcomer Sasha Lane, Star is an inexperienced and unhappy young mother who is happy to leave behind her deprived life to enter what she views as an act of liberation with the ragtag sales crew she joins; this is what largely forms the basis of this intriguing yet unevenly-paced drama.

The first and more effective half of American Honey narrates a very bleak depiction of Star’s deprivation and her desire for escapism. To her, Midwest America is an unforgiving and isolated wasteland where she must rummage through dustbins to feed her children. By sharp contrast, through soft lighting and stunning cinematography, the actual landscape itself is gorgeous with lots of sunshine, which serves as a rather jarring transcendence between Star’s harsh reality and a dreamlike illusion of an amazing wilderness. This is one of the film’s greatest assets, as is the soundtrack that boasts both sombre and jovial Midwestern songs to strengthen the contrast. This conflict is certainly one of the film’s key themes in its examination of American ideology and responses from its youth.

The sales crew that Star joins are largely a lively bunch with their ambitious hopes and dreams. Other than LaBeouf as the charismatic Jake, they are also played by little known actors, which works well because they make their performances seem naturally believable. However, the film ultimately belongs to Lane, who is astonishing as Star. Even though her actions to join the group are unethical (i.e. abandoning her own children), Star is a sympathetic if headstrong character, with Lane perfectly embodying her thoughts and reactions to her aggressive world. Like her fellow travellers, Star dreams of earning enough money to own her own place and wants to prove that she can do something in her life. This is the underlying motivation of the group’s likely endless journey, which in itself seems impossible to achieve like the dreams they follow.

Based on this, American Honey has very little plot to it and this is probably its biggest setback as well as its greatest intention. This is more evident in its rather slow second half, soon after Star proves her worth to the crew with a clever sale. The group travelling to different places and Star’s salesmanship efforts soon start to become a bit too repetitive and, despite good chemistry between Lane and LaBeouf, Star and Jake’s on-off relationship never seems to go anywhere interesting. The running time of 164 minutes can also be too long for some viewers and does cause the film to lose its momentum towards the end. Nonetheless, the strengths are more than enough to allow American Honey to pull through and surmount to an absorbing, if over-long, journey of adult youth, ambitious dreams and self-discovery.

Rating: 3/5

American Honey is playing at the Duke of York’s Picturehouse until November 3rd.

The Verse Staff

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