There is an America we don’t often see in film, certainly not in American cinema. Sure, we may see the impoverished from time to time, the ones left behind, the kind of people who might vote for Donald Trump in the upcoming election. But usually, these are either rags-to-riches stories or misery porn about individual cases, often involving an addiction of some kind. Andrea Arnold’s fourth film, however, American Honey, attempts to do a more thorough examination of bottom-class America through a specific sub-culture: traveling sales crews who go door to door peddling magazine subscriptions. Arnold got the idea for this through an article on such crews in The New York Times, and followed one of them around the Midwest. Unfortunately, she loses sight of her subject matter too often in lieu of a trite romantic side-story that should have been just that, but takes center stage frustratingly often, robbing the film of the chance to be a powerful contemporary portrait of an invisible America, a road trip odyssey of America’s underbelly. That film is somewhere in there, but unfortunately stifled by the absence of a tighter edit. As it is now, the film is an unfocused, freeflowing experiment that has moments of lyricism, but is bogged down by attempts to bring some structure to the proceedings, which only clashes with the film’s visual style, editing and acting.
Star (Sasha Lane, in her debut), an adolescent girl with an abusive stepfather and two kids (his, not hers) runs into one of these crews, led by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), at a strip mall, that quintessential American heartland invention. He offers her a job, and on a whim she leaves the boyfriend and kids to join his group of late teens and early twentysomethings. The two take a strong liking to each other, much to the chagrin of the true boss of the outfit, Krystal (Riley Keough). Paired with Jake initially to show her the ropes, the strong-willed Star soon tries to go her own way to scrape sales together.
American Honey is anchored around the central relationship between Star and Jake, and this poses its biggest problem, since the pairing is just not interesting enough. Lane and LaBeouf have zero chemistry, so any time they are on screen play-arguing, teasing, or having sex, you want Arnold to move on and focus on the rest of the crew again. The group dynamic is where the strength of the film lies, and all the kids, almost uniformly newcomers with no experience in front of a camera, bring something unique and real since most of them are not really acting, but more or less playing themselves. One has to assume this was the subject matter that attracted Arnold’s interest at first, so why she felt the need to work a romance into the story is mystifying. The kids lend an authenticity to American Honey that is lacking when it comes down to just Lane and LaBeouf.
The film plays best when we’re in the van the crew travels from town to town with, the camera close to them in this cramped space, when these kids are goofing around, sharing their dreams, and listening to an endless stream of trap music. It is interesting to note that the whole crew is white, with kids from all over the US, yet this young subset of the white lower class in heartland America seems to have appropriated this decidedly black music genre. In one scene, LaBeouf and Lane are trying to sell their subscriptions to an upper-middle-class mother, and the teen daughter of the house, attracted to LaBeouf’s Jake, puts on a show with her friends to the same type of music in a way that would be deemed inappropriate for any teen girl. It’s an interesting comment on this appropriation of African American culture by white America, yet when the sales crew get down to E-40’s “Choices,” one senses a strange connection between these lower-class white kids and the lower-class African American communities this music is mostly associated with, nicely underlined by Arnold through the casual way the crew members interact with a group of black kids in one of the many motel parking lots they come across. There’s a bond between these two groups, both of which have no longer a place at the ‘winners’ table in the current America. It is these almost wordless comments that make the film worthwhile.
Because if there is anything this film gets right, it is the way it shows a poverty and desolation that certainly exists in the United States today, without devolving into misery porn, save perhaps for one scene late in the film. Arnold manages to get this across mostly through transitional shots and scenes between the romantic meat of the story. One has to wonder what somebody like Frederick Wiseman could have done with this subject matter, as the material feels more suited for a documentary than a feature film, certainly one that is clocking in at almost three hours. Strengthening this feeling is the choice of shooting this handheld and in a 1:1.37 aspect ratio, which creates a sense of ‘being there,’ certainly in the scenes in the van, and evokes an intimacy between the crew members, not always comfortable, that emphasizes the idea that for these kids, alone on the road with no parent or guardian in sight, this is their family. They work together, they party together, they are always together. Even if the newfound actors playing these kids are from all over the place, much like their characters, there is a strong bond that is palpable in every (almost) square frame, which makes every diversion outside the group a nuisance.
Acting in her first role ever, Sasha Lane, who was found on the beaches of Panama City, Florida, while on spring break, shows talent in her few quiet scenes where real emotions are required, such as an early scene in a downright creepy dance with her stepfather. LaBeouf is more problematic, but not because of his acting. The issue is that in a cast of mostly amateurs and newcomers, his face stands out and takes the viewer out of the film, since his presence feels inauthentic when put next to the others in the crew. LaBeouf does fine as the smooth-talking Jake, but you can never look past the fact that this is Shia LaBeouf, an actor playing a role, whereas the rest feel more naturally at place in this world. The only other actor of some name, Riley Keough, does a creditable job as Krystal, a ratchet bitch of a woman who runs a tight show. Her steely takedowns and dismissals inject some fire and liveliness into the screenplay, which is otherwise devoid of any real conflict outside of Lane’s and LaBeouf’s troubled relationship. And it is precisely that misguided conflict that prevents American Honey from being the great film that it could have been.