Have you ever wanted to spend three hours in a van with a dozen unwashed teenagers? If so, you’re in luck. A product of a post-Jerry Springer world, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey might best be described as a modernized mythologization of the childhood fantasy of running away to join the circus — and conceptually it’s just about as functional. This may well be a film that holds value for some, but I can’t imagine why or how.
With a punishingly brutal running time just shy of three hours, American Honey is one of the most self-indulgent films in recent memory. While I don’t particularly mind self-indulgence if it serves some greater purpose, I’ll be damned if I can grasp any deeper significance underlying this film. The narrative, such as it is, follows a young girl who abandons her sleazy live-in boyfriend and his two kids to take up with a group of similarly troubled teens who travel the country selling magazines door-to-door. We never really see any of the kids succeed in their appointed task, leaving most of the overlong film to ponder the protagonist’s tempestuous relationship with Shia LaBeouf. To say this is a pointless endeavor would be a drastic understatement.
LaBeouf is egregiously bad here, sporting a faux rat-tail braid and a Klonopin stare that made me wish he had kept that paper bag over his head and heeded its admonition that he isn’t to be famous anymore (and probably never should have been in the first place). His performance is so thoroughly outmatched by that of non-professional newcomer Sasha Lane that I wondered briefly if his casting might be some sort of metacommentary by the filmmaker on the irrationality of celebrity — at least before the film hammered home the fact that Arnold hadn’t thought about her work deeply enough to have considered adding commentary of any sort.
Stylistically, Arnold is heavily indebted to the Italian neorealists and later filmmakers like Terrence Malick, but it should go without saying her work does not compare favorably to these antecedents. Her camera lingers when it should move, frequently falling prey to the inevitable shaky-cam crutch that weak directors mistake for aesthetic immediacy. The less said about her writerly prowess and narrative sensibility (or lack thereof), the better. However, having grown up around many people from underprivileged backgrounds in the mountains of North Carolina, I have to point out the film’s cardinal sin (beyond its general purposelessness) is that it treats its subjects exploitatively, mining their inherent otherness for shock value and novelty rather than depicting them as nuanced characters with value and meaning in their own right.
At its core, American Honey is a film about irresponsibility, and Arnold has shown her own in the poor decision to deliver a meaningless film that glorifies the terrible choices of others. Speaking as someone who could demographically be lumped in with the millennial generation, this film is indicative of everything our elder statesmen decry about contemporary youth. It feels distinctly as though the filmmakers — as well as the critics who have lauded their work — are desperately struggling to be seen as “cool” by their young subjects. If such an assessment is indeed accurate, I’ll continue to happily count myself among the ranks of the tragically unhip. Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout and drug and alcohol abuse involving teens.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.