Fantastic Fest: Pretty and poignant “American Honey” misses out on greatness

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"American Honey" tells the story of Star (Sasha Lane), a downtrodden 18-year-old who is in a relationship with a deadbeat dad and spends her days raising children who aren’t her own. But when Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his ragtag band come to town, they offer her an escape.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of British Film Institute | Daily Texan Staff

Just as many writers have labored to create the next great American novel, many filmmakers have striven to create the next great American film.

“American Honey” is director Andrea Arnold’s shot at winning that title. An epic steeped in Americana, the film tries to  encapsulate a transient experience on highways of the Midwest. Unfortunately, it ultimately winds up being a grandiose exercise of artful yet muddled posturing that grasps at meaning. Alas, it falls short of greatness.

The best thing about “American Honey” is Sasha Lane, a Texas native who plays the film’s protagonist, Star. She’s a downtrodden 18-year-old who is in a relationship with a deadbeat dad and spends her days raising children who aren’t her own. Lane imbues Star with fierceness and independence, with hard-edged despair and wide-eyed hopefulness. It’s a truly mesmerizing performance that immediately grabs one’s attention the moment the film starts.

Star’s escape from her humdrum existence comes in the form of Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his ragtag band of disenfranchised youth. They are self-proclaimed magazine salesmen, going door to door in the hopes that someone will put up the cash for a yearly subscription to a title they offer. The group’s leader is the trashy Krystal (Riley Keough), a domineering ice queen who spends the profits on clothes and expensive bedding. She has Jake on a tight leash, expecting him to dote on her at all times — such as when she demands him to rub lotion on her legs when he disappoints her.

Star and Jake simmer from the start of their friendship, which blossoms quickly into a romance behind Krystal’s back. LaBeouf plays up his charm to a ridiculously lovable degree, but he really shines when the movie begins to peel back the layers to his complexities. Though possessive of Star, Jake is unable to commit to a relationship with her, which forms one of several conflicts Star deals with throughout the movie.

Along the road, Star learns how to use her feisty spirit for profit, and she discovers what she’s willing to sacrifice. At first, it’s nothing more than white lies, but her body and sexuality eventually come into the equation. The night she prostitutes herself for the first time is her lowest point, and from there, she decides to become a better person.

Featuring very little plot and a lot of improvisation from its talented cast, “American Honey” is an intimate character study first and foremost. Arnold and Lane always keep us apprised of Star’s thoughts, which is especially impressive in the stretches of the film without dialogue. Star spends most of the movie searching for meaning in her existence. There are motifs of God, of dreams, of money – concepts she must grapple with as she tries to figure out who she is.

Cinematographer Robbie Ryan captures Star’s journey in Academy ratio. This means the picture has a square frame rather than the letterbox widescreen of most modern films. There’s a warm feel to its breathtaking, impressionistic montages of imagery, and the deep indigos and ripe oranges grab the eye, especially during the many sunsets viewers will experience on Andrea’s cross-country trek.

“American Honey” builds toward poignancy and achieves the meaning it strives for, but it meanders too often for its own good. It is overlong at its nearly three-hour running time, too often indulging in scenes and making them outstay their welcome. For example, the gang’s drug and booze-induced hijinks do become quite repetitive as time drags on. As a result, “American Honey” leaves too much room for the mind to wander when it should be engaging it.

The muddled, shapeless structure of the film may prove unsatisfying for viewers or leave them befuddled during its uncertain conclusion. But no one can deny “American Honey” is nonetheless courageous, a boldly executed picture that will leave you affected.

“American Honey”
Running Time: 163 minutes
Rating: R
Score: 3.5/5 stars