It may not seem overtly insidious, but there’s a predilection in the filmed arts, especially in the modern era, to overlook the plight of the lower classes. Lip service is paid to those that toil and struggle for their slim piece of the pie known as the American Dream. British writer-director Andrea Arnold is ready to take on the plight of American poverty in her new lyrical drama American Honey, which would has the potential to be a great portrait of capitalism as a means to exploit the underclasses yearning for more but is bogged down by an astoundingly excessive running time that resoundingly undermines the impact of this class fueled drama.
When you’ve been discarded as the refuse of your culture, you’re only left to scrim and scrape through the dumpster of existence. At least that’s the reality that Star (Sasha Lane) is forced to deal with when we’re first introduced to her as she scrounges a whole chicken from a dumpster with her young siblings. Her home life is that of an unsettling existence, having to contend with incestuous sexual advances of her father while trying her best to care for her younger siblings. When presented with a way out of the morose malaise of her everyday being by Jake (Shia LaBeouf) through a chance encounter at a K-Mart, she tries to ensure her siblings are properly cared for before bolting into the night to embark on a life on the road selling magazines for the low class entrepreneur Krystal (Riley Keough). From there, Star embarks on a quest of questionable fortitude through the exploitative heart of the American Dream.
The poignancy of Arnold’s film is undone by its unwieldy running time, which is never fully earned. Had American Honey been a 90- or 100-minute examination of the shady practices employed to exploit and rule the underclasses, it could’ve been a vital and beautiful portrait of the ugly side of Americana. Instead, the film is a needlessly long road trip with repellant white trash – tragically flawed because the film never gives us much of a reason to want to spend so much time with these characters.
Each character is well-acted, whether the striking debut of Sasha Lane or the white trash guru of Shia LaBeouf, but almost every character is undone by fairly thin characterizations. One particular scene where Lane’s Star and LeBeouf’s Jake are trying to hustle some magazine sales in an upper class neighborhood ends when Star lashes out at the homeowner. What drives this angered response? It’s not entirely clear. There are a number of frustrating scenes like this over the course of the film’s almost three-hour running time where characters make decisions that don’t make much sense based upon what we’ve been shown. This takes even an ugly turn when Star decides to prostitute herself following an unsuccessful attempt to sell magazines.
There are moments of visual splendor in American Honey, with the cinematography of Robbie Ryan giving a naturalistic feel to lower class characters and settings. Surprisingly, American Honey has an old fashioned aspect ratio of 1.33, something that’s rarely seen these days. There’s nice visual balance between the glossy sheen of the cinematography and the gritty characters and locations these vagabonds encounter along the way.
American Honey is a movie full of moments in search of a stronger connective tissue that never appears. There are things I like about the movie – it’s a pleasure seeing Arielle Holmes from last year’s stellar Heaven Knows What getting other acting opportunities – but its immense running time undermines its effectiveness at every turn. Andrea Arnold is fascinated by aspects of Americana that are consistently overlooked, and is willing to take a deep dive into the underbelly of the under classes. American Honey has its pieces that stand out on their own, but the whole is a movie that leaves a lot to be desired.
- Overall Score
An almost soulful examination of class struggle in America, American Honey’s strengths are simultaneously undone by its unwieldy running time of nearly three hours that is never fully earned by the story on the screen.