TIFF 2016 Review: American Honey
It was deja vu all over again this year at Cannes, as Andrea Arnold premiered yet another divisive film that walked away with a Jury prize (Arnold’s third prize, in fact). It doesn’t come as a surprise that Arnold gets accolades from both critics and festivals; even her biggest detractors admit she has a well-defined aesthetic. But most of American Honey’s praise feels like it comes from a place where just having a distinctive style deserves high praise, even if it might not be an especially good one.
The film follows Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), a teenage girl living in poverty with an abusive father and absent mother, who joins up with a crew of young people selling magazines across the country. She takes a liking to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the second-in-command to group leader Krystal (Riley Keough), and soon the two fall in love. That’s pretty much it for the story, as Arnold prefers to watch the dozen or so characters Star travels with drink, party, and listen to music for the film’s over-indulgent 160-minute runtime. The malleability of her stretched-out narrative means that her film doesn’t break apart as much as it just sags, shuffling along with a monotonous energy until the credits mercifully roll.
But the worst part of American Honey’s excessiveness has less to do with its size and more to do with how Arnold utilizes it. Sasha Lane only brings a distinctive look to the film as its lead, giving an indifferent performance that makes it hard to get any sense of her identity or feelings. Her co-stars don’t fare much better, acting as little more than thinly drawn eccentrics who, save for LaBeouf and Keough, have the weight of their performances rest on the “naturalism” Arnold relies on by casting nonprofessionals. What American Honey amounts to, then, is an overlong glimpse at the surfaces of poverty and carefree youth, and through its glossy grit shows how Arnold’s attempts to make a grand, generational statement are as vast and empty as the lands her characters travel through.