Friday, October 09, 2020

American Honey (2016)

UK / USA, 163 minutes
Director / writer: Andrea Arnold
Photography: Robbie Ryan
Music: Rihanna, E-40, Juicy J, Rae Sremmurd, Carnage, etc.
Editor: Joe Bini
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal Ice, Johnny Pierce II, Shawna Rae Mosely

By its length, by its title, by its timing, director and writer Andrea Arnold's American Honey arrived boldly insisting it has something monumental to say about the way we live now in this country and oh, er, maybe "Obama's America" in an election year. It's one of those pictures that feels like an event more than just another day at the movies. It tells an ambitious story of booze, drugs, sex, and money, putting naïve teens and 20somethings on a road trip that wanders across the Great Plains and never ends. American Honey starts in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and travels through Kansas City, into Iowa, across the badlands of North Dakota, and through a giant blasting thunderstorm, among other points of Midwestern interest. These kids are not searching for themselves or America. This is not Easy Rider. They're out there conning white suburbanites into buying magazine subscriptions and, like a degraded version of the already degraded privileged kids in Risky Business, they just want to make money. A lot of money.

American Honey focuses on three characters: Star (Sasha Lane), an 18-year-old of mixed racial origins escaping her nowhere life going nowhere in Muskogee, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a lothario from Bakersfield and the best seller on the crew, and Krystal (Riley Keough), who poses as a chippy ice goddess Southern beauty. Krystal is the corporate road manager assigned to running this show on the road, by name "Crew 071." But the crew itself is a brilliant fourth character, like a Greek chorus counterpoint, this scruffy half-drunken bunch of down-and-outers. They are like a traveling 24/7 party, heaving riotous fun wherever they go at kegger levels of loose. It's so mysterious, so revelatory, seeing them from a distance carrying on in parking lots like a circus gang. They are all hot and a little dirty, from all parts of the US like an old-fashioned World War II Army platoon. American Honey manages to have it both ways. It is and is not Simon & Garfunkel, all gone to look for America.

Which reminds me, there is even a fifth major character here in the soundtrack, a heavily hip hop jukebox of mid-2010s hits and licks. The music is deeply integrated, as much about these kids simply responding to it as an impressive DJ job, featuring Rihanna, E-40 (wonderful morning scene with "Choices [Yup]"), Juicy J, and many others. There's even room for post-grunge interludes. And American Honey piles on from there with copious handheld camera shots as the crew spreads out and does its work, with a good many scenes that feel worked out in some kind of riffing improv approach to rehearsals and shooting. American Honey is constantly alive and buzzing furiously.

For my money, Krystal is the most convincing figure in all this with her put-together sexless sexiness, her cigarette smoking and her Confederate-flag bikini. She claims she's from the South, an "American honey," but it turns out she's from Iowa. She is single-mindedly, pathologically devoted to making money and controlling and manipulating people. But she might be more of a stereotype, powered by the amazing poise of Riley Keough, and I'm distracted (like everyone in the crew) by the lipstick and exposed flesh. Star is more genuinely a fully realized character, in her complicated integrity and innocence, which she maintains even when she is playing dangerous games with three husky middle-aged cowboys who keep laying twenties and tequila on her in an amazing backyard swimming pool scene. Star is not really very good at sales, and I say that like it's a good thing because I think it is. Jake is a confusing figure—a creepy sociopath, as we quickly see from his behavior, but also a young man who doesn't yet know who he is, still experimenting with identities even as he beds women constantly because he can.

Did I say these kids are not searching for themselves? Nah. Come on, what person age 16 to 25 is not doing exactly and almost exclusively that? And why would anyone make a movie about them? Like Spring Breakers, American Honey finds a terrifying way to show what searching for yourself looks like in the world we've given them, a world where petty crime as well as great crime is simply smart if you can get away with it, and you probably can (because of insurance, etc.). The world is devolving into chaos and burning up and blowing away because we won't take care of the obvious things. Selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door is still considered viable, even when it quite obviously is not.

There are many harrowing scenes in American Honey and nearly as many sweet moments of kindness, redemption, and strength (e.g., a trucker who enjoys Bruce Springsteen's cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream"). You may have to forgive a few convenient or misfiring plot points—sometimes when your approach is organic and spontaneous it leaves some gaps behind. Sometimes American Honey has too much of the energy of Fight Club (notably in the "Losers' Night" idea, which is still a good one). There are wolf calls, real and feigned, an unlikely but beautiful bear sighting, and final scenes with Star submerging underwater. American Honey goes on for a fairly long time but it is over before you know it and it looks even better the second time.

Top 20 of 2016
1. Twentieth Century Women
2. American Honey
3. O.J.: Made in America
4. The Handmaiden
5. Toni Erdmann
6. Sing Street
7. Deadpool
8. The Purge: Election Year
9. Moonlight
10. The Shallows
11. Colossal
12. Manchester by the Sea
13. Love & Friendship
14. I Am Not Your Negro
15. The Birth of a Nation
16. Arrival
17. Train to Busan
18. Personal Shopper
19. Everybody Wants Some!!
20. Gimme Danger

Other write-ups: Allied, Bad Moms, The BFG, Captain Fantastic, Doctor Strange, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fences, Free State of Jones, Ghostbusters, The Girl on the Train, Keeping Up With the Joneses, La La Land, Masterminds, Miracles From Heaven, The Nice Guys, Queen of Katwe, Star Trek Beyond, 10 Cloverfield Lane


  1. E-40 is a big deal in our family ... he's been my son's favorite since the beginning, and he's "ours" in that Yay Area way. I love that he is relevant in movies like this, and that he is 52 years old and still matters.

    Meanwhile, I loved this movie. Only 4th on my 2016 list, which is hardly a condemnation. (Top 3: Moonlight, OJ, and Johnnie To's Three.)

  2. I have to check out that Johnnie To movie, thanks! I don't think I know him at all.

  3. Hey, I've seen almost half of your list! And based on those nine, otherwise not knowing much, seems like '16 was a good year for movies. But what ab Trump era prophecy or historical echoes? OJ?

    I do especially like your American Honey write-up, though. I started skeptical ab the Fight Club energy, maybe too, but the wild yearning in the exurban badlands-- it's like the opioid crisis and deaths of despair are in the air-- sucked me in.

    And special shout out for I am Not Your Negro for its vivid portraiture. I get Baldwin now in a way I didn't before. What a force.

  4. The Purge franchise is not bad on Trump era prophecy, though I haven't seen what they've done with it since he's actually been in office.