You might want to think about your definition of what a movie is before buying a ticket for “American Honey,” a new film from British director Andrea Arnold. If story is your thing, then perhaps look elsewhere. Arnold’s has made a rambling two-hour-and-forty-minute faux cinema vérité road movie that is all journey and no destination.
Newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, an eighteen-year-old from a troubled home. Her ticket out of the dysfunction she has grown up with is a travelling band of magazine sellers led by the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Krystal (Riley Keough). She joins after a short job interview—“Do you got anyone who’s going to miss you?”—jumping in the van as the team treks across the American Midwest, selling magazines door to door. “We do more than work,” says Jake. “We explore. We party.” Despite training from top seller Jake, who’ll say anything to move the magazines, she’s not the best sales person. “You don’t have to read them,” she says. “You can use them to wipe your ass.” When not selling copies of “Trout Aficionado” the team explores, parties, tries to make money while Star and Jake embark on a covert affair.
Some will find Arnold‘s free form filmmaking exhilarating; some will find it exasperating. At epic length there is an emphasis on naturalism with all that entails; the mundane and the pulse racing in equal measure. It’s not a traditional road flick, it’s part of a sub-genre of road movies, the American travelogues by British directors armed with shaky hand held cameras.
There are some sublime moments, mostly when Star and Jake inhabit the screen, but too often we’re just along for the ride, like kids banished to the backseat watching everyone else have fun while having none ourselves.
Lane is a charismatic presence and LaBeouf will forever wipe away any and all memories of his stint as a child star. The real star is Keough, a Fagin-like character, tough-as-nails with a glare that could peel the paint off the walls. She’s not just Elvis Presley’s granddaughter; she can act.
Set in a world where regular folks still open the door for rattily dressed kids selling magazines, “American Honey” is a road trip about families lost and families found, about poverty and disenfranchised youth. It’s also about three hours long, which will be too long a trip for many people.