American Honey is an impressive, immersive experience. It’s at times profoundly upsetting and other times a blast. It’s ambitious, thoughtful, visually stunning. It’s also 162 minutes long. I saw this movie without looking up the runtime, and not expecting it’s obscene length definitely affected my experience. In my opinion for a movie to sustain a runtime longer than 2 hours it needs to really need to be that long. American Honey is a deliberate and thoughtful film- I can understand arguments in favor of its length. At times the slow pace works in the films favor. However it circles back on a handful of ideas and messages one too many times to truly deserve 2 hours and 45 minutes.
The film follows Star (Sasha Lane), a young woman who lives in poverty in the American South. She is responsible for two children until she abandons them for a job opportunity. After making googly eyes at each other in a grocery store, Jake (Shia LaBeouf, who wears the role like an air-tight dry cleaning bag) hires her to drive across the country in a van selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. There isn’t much to the plot after this initial set-up. They travel and try to hustle up as much cash as they can. There’s a romantic triangle between Star, Jake, and their manager Krystal (Riley Keough, who is apparently is not Kristen Stewart but is Elvis’ granddaughter). It cycles through these narrative elements along with a handful of visual motifs: Star observes bugs, children, and the landscape, beautiful in all its banality, rolling past the van window.
The slow pace and lack of narrative suit the film’s themes. Most road movies are structured very clearly. There is a point A and a point Z, a character moves toward a specific destination and experiences a linear series of events that changes them. American Honey feels more authentically like a road trip. You gradually watch the world change ever so subtlety around you, until eventually you’re somewhere that looks entirely different from where you started. You listen to the same ten songs you’re really into at the moment. You bob around the microscopic social bubble of your vehicle, with little interference from the outside world.
The repetition and banality work best when used to describe these characters and their situation. The ensemble of characters are extremely poor. Their poverty manifests in the mundane. Arnold repeatedly shows the insides of refrigerators. Their sparse contents speak as much to these characters’ situations as a dumpster diving scene. The constant, looping nature of their problems pointedly articulates the frustration that comes with a lack of bare necessities.
The characters drive in the van, passing around bottle of liquor, they chant along to rap songs, they have their own rituals. They arrive to a new town and Krystal instructs the team how to look and act. They pair up in teams of two and go door to door and then they all get inebriated in a motel parking lot. Then they’re back on the road. The cycle works it’s first few go-rounds. We feel the grind of their routine. There are differences each time, but the variation is mostly cosmetic. In a wealthy neighborhood Krystal instructs the crew to look poor, tell a sad story so the rich people pity them and buy more magazines. In a poor neighborhood she says look poor, act sad, these people are just like you so they’ll relate and buy more magazines. It’s always the same instruction, framed slightly different for the environment. After a while though, the point has been made. As the film plods on past its second hour the tedium becomes less insightful. It becomes kinda like an SNL sketch. It works because it goes on for so long….and then it goes on some more.
The authenticity that accompanies redundancy, repetition, and banality wears out its welcome. After about an hour it starts to feel redundant. After two hours it feels obnoxious. Embracing redundancy is bold and suits the subject matter, but functions with diminishing returns. Somewhere in the third act the movie runs out of things to say. Overall this is an ambitious, beautifully crafted film. If you are patient (Glob knows I’m not) American Honey is worth your time.
American Honey is beautifully shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan who captures the American heartland warts and all in glorious 4:3. And c’mon people more movies should be 4:3, it’s such an underused aspect ratio these days. Each shot feels like it’s own photograph, faces fit better in the frame, there’s more opportunity for vertical compositions. 4:3 is all kinds of sexy.
SCORE: 3.5 American Honeys out of 5.0 American Honeys.
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