The Long Grift
By Nick Pinkerton

American Honey
Dir. Andrea Arnold, U.S./U.K., A24

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey contains faces and places that well and truly deserve to be seen on the movie screen. The spotty, pierced faces belong to an amateur ensemble cast of teenage fuck-ups; the places are a panoply of flyover settings: an extended stay hotel in Kansas City, a cookie-cutter McMansion subdivision, some ass-end-of-nowhere Dakota Badlands in the cash-flush flurry of an oil boom. The problem—and it’s an insuperable one—is that these sights, which beg to be lingered on, are used as elements flashing in the background of a story that is rote in the extreme, that of the triangular relationship between 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane); Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the footloose, rat-tailed foreman on a magazine-selling crew who hustles her to join his merry band of blunted Bacardi-sippers; and the boss of the whole operation, Krystal (Riley Keough).

The movie, which rides along with a claque of dispossessed white wastrels who seem to never have had reason to suspect that they’re the beneficiaries of “privilege,” introduces its identification character, Star, in the midst of a dumpster dive, scavenging food for two unbelievably filthy young children who are in her care. In time we gather that the kids belong to her big sister, and Star is quick to drop them (and her drunk lunk of a boyfriend) so she can hit the road after she’s extended a job offer/pick-up from Jake, who transfixes her from the moment that she first sees him hopping up onto a supermarket checkout counter to swivel and sing along to Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”

Not long after this, Star finds herself recruited into Krystal’s door-to-door sales gang—the preferred nomenclature, per the 2007 New York Times exposé that inspired American Honey, is “mag crew”—and packed into an eleven-foot Econoline van with a gaggle of latchkey kids from all over the country who are as one unified entity when getting a buzz on in the AM and rapping along to the self-curated pop soundtrack of their lives. There is one face in this crowd that may be familiar to some viewers, that of Arielle Holmes, the recovered heroin addict who was “discovered” on the street and starred in and provided the autobiographical spine to Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What. Aside from LaBeouf and Keough, the rest of the cast are likewise non- or semi-professional performers, like Texas State University student Lane, an adequately opaque performer scouted during a trip by Arnold to spring break in Panama City, Florida. These photogenic urchins are American Honey’s strongest attribute, and its selling point—among the first-timers are tow-headed skate rat McCaul Lombardi, whose character has a passion for whipping out his dick, and who is already flashing his tats in a fair share of photo shoots.

The kids are obviously gassed to be on camera, and though not much is done to adumbrate them as individual personalities, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the infectious energy of their interstate karaoke “performances” to the likes of E-40’s “Choices (Yup),” most of which involve a lot of insouciant bounce and unembarrassed chanting of “nigga.” In these moments Arnold gets a sense of life lived in a perpetual present tense, with everyone in the van the protagonist of their own internal music video, heads nodding along in tune to a playlist that includes Jerimih (“All the Time”), Rae Sremmurd (“No Type”), and Lady Antebellum (eponymous track). The kids’ taste skews pretty poptimist on the whole, though Arnold introduces a few elements that seem like her own, including a trucker who listens to Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” while talking with Star about (yes) dreams; a sudden non-diegetic burst of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”; and an abandoned moppet who, unlikely as it may seem, knows by heart the lyrics to the Dead Kennedys’ “I Kill Children”—all off-putting, inorganic, and ham-handedly purposeful impositions that undermine everything good that the movie does with its pop soundtrack.

Along with Star, the viewer is initiated into the rites and rituals of the mag crew: the looping playlist of signature songs; the huddle-up, go-get-’em chants; and the honored tradition of “Loser Night”—a kind of Walpurgisnacht bonfire bust-up where the two least-successful crew members have to meet in gladiatorial combat to see who gets to stay with the gang, the “elimination round” aspect of which suggests that what hasn’t been colonized by pop hooks for these kids is the province of reality television game shows, with their scaled-in enactment of cutthroat capitalism. These formative influences aren’t necessarily depicted as products of class background, either: at the first house that Star and Jake visit, an upper middle-class suburban palace, tweens are seen twerking on the patio through their sales pitch, while the camera picks out Selfish, Kim Kardashian West’s recent coffee table book of selfies, among a pile of birthday swag.

Culturally, the “vast wasteland” of Newton Minow has overflowed to claim life itself, while the offhand criminality of the mag crew put me in mind of a bit by Quentin Crisp: “Kids today are violent because they have no inner life; they have no inner life because they have no thoughts; they have no thoughts because they know no words; they know no words because they never speak; and they never speak because the music's too loud.” Arnold is, like Crisp, a Briton, but if she is aghast at the pretty vacancy that she’s found in the American heartland, she gives no indication of it. (Nor does she do much to suggest the existence of inner lives for her kids, save larding the movie with images of Star gazing wistfully into the middle distance.) The film is shot in mock-clumsy, knockabout style by Arnold’s longtime collaborator Robbie Ryan, and made further disorienting by the deliberately bobbled, stammering cutting. The use of these tropes suggesting “immediacy” is justified in the film’s occasional alignment with Star’s subjectivity, though it’s best not to think too literally about this, lest you start wondering why there are cutaways to a lawn sprinkler during moments of passionate transport.

At other times, Arnold and Ryan turn to the purely picturesque, either in pretty-crude snapshot images or a punchline pan that passes over the whole mag crew taking a roadside pee break to reveal that they’re doing so next to (and into) the Grand Canyon. The movie is full of these red herrings meant to suggest ways in which it’s “about America”—you should have heard the pens scratching away in the dark at my press screening when LaBeouf muttered something about “Forty acres and a mule”—but these are pure superficialities, and American Honey resolutely dwells on the tactual, skin-deep level. Those so inclined might find a statement in this, something about how only the language of cliché can depict a heartland where cliché is the lingua franca, but this is pretty flimsy stuff next to, say, the satirical, psychoanalytical study of the internalization of inspirational cliché in Danny McBride’s series Eastbound & Down, and compared to recent (very different) American pastorals like Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side or Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, American Honey comes off as the work of a gawping tourist.

Here again this can be explained through subjectivity. We are seeing things, like the mag crew, for the first time—in perhaps the movie’s most touching, tossed-off moment, they’re shown getting pumped up as the skyline of Kansas City comes into view, and there’s something rare and just right in this, for there are plenty of kids out there for whom Kansas City is The Big Time. The raw materials are here for maybe the most extraordinary amateur American ensemble cast since Kids, but where director Larry Clark and screenwriter Harmony Korine used the race-against-time plot mechanics as a framework from which to hang memorable ethnographic-anecdotal incidents, Arnold returns insistently, dutifully to her deathly dull core plotline—what Star believes to be a budding True Love between Jake and herself, replete with episodes of rutting in the green grass and the front seat of a stolen drop-top.

All of the pseudo-documentary affectations are present and accounted for here, but the film is sorely missing the conspiratorial sense of firsthand insider information that distinguished Kids, with its tutorials in blunt-rolling and 40 oz. filching. Arnold obviously gets a kick out of the idea of the free and easy mag crew lifestyle, but there’s nothing to indicate that she cares about the practical exigencies behind making it work. And while Star is in thrall to Jake, Arnold’s movie is in thrall to the demands of star casting—to the detriment of both. Formerly a Disney Channel–minted actor who has been widely and correctly dismissed as an uncharismatic, lightweight drip, LaBeouf has in recent years passed through public bouts with plagiarism, alcoholism, and performance art, all of which has made him highly visible, and none of which made him actually viable in this part, transparently meant as his answer to James Franco’s gimmick job in Spring Breakers. It’s the kind of performance that makes you say, every time that LaBeouf sets foot on screen: “Oh, look, there’s Shia LaBeouf.”

Keough, the lead on Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, doesn’t integrate with the nonprofessional cast much better, but then she isn’t really called to—she’s the aristocrat of the group, counting her money in a private suite to which Star is periodically invited for dressing-downs, and which Jake has open access to for other purposes, a fact that causes Star much heartache. The confrontation scene occurs more than once, as does the performance to “Choices (Yup),” as does McCaul juggling his junk about—in fact, the film is full of repetitions, the most central being a recurring bit in which Star is seen to rescue a trapped insect or some other critter from imminent peril: fishing a bee out of a swimming pool, things like that. The idea, I suppose, is that we are sharing in Star’s experience of gradual disillusion, as the same events which occurred the first time as a thrill occur the next time as a drag, leading her to finally to gather strength to save herself, as she’d saved the drowning bee.

This happens after around two hours and forty minutes of screen time—though for hip filmgoers and critics who bemoan blockbuster bloat, no film that displays artistic pretention can go wrong when dealing in duration. But then American Honey is one of those movies where you can take any demerit and explain it away as an attempt to exemplify something of its subject. Maybe its malnourished heft reflects America’s obesity epidemic? Maybe the casting of the film’s lead actors as villainous management figures reflects the degree to which American youth are victimized by the Pied Piper tune of celebrity culture? Maybe the interminable (and very traditional) amour fou story that Arnold fixates on to the detriment of the actually engaging ensemble interplay is a metaphor for how we dull our experience by channeling it into familiar narrative grooves? Maybe 1 x 1 = 1, and a cigar is just a cigar, and a hot trailer park teen is just a hot trailer park teen? Maybe this faux-naive approach collapses under its own weight into a pile of vacant woolgathering? Maybe this movie is a mess because America is too? Maybe there are better ways to spend your time?