Movie Review: American Honey

Cannes jury prize winner offers a long road trip but no destination

American Honey
Directed by Andrea Arnold
With Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Raymond Coalson, Chad McKenzie Cox, Verronikah Ezell, Arielle Holmes, Garry
Howell, Crystal B. Ice, McCaul Lombardi

There is a dark underside to capitalism, the people on the bottom of the system trying to get by. A little-known form of migrant labor is magazine crews, people who go in groups from one city to another to sell magazine subscriptions door to door. The work is poorly paid and largely unregulated.

American Honey follows one such crew on a road trip across the center of the United States. Except for Shia LaBeouf as the crew's top seller and Riley Keough as the manager, the main cast is made of non-actors, giving the film a sort of neorealist, pseudodocumentary look. The film won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes film festival, the third time that British director Andrea Arnold has won that award.

The main focus of the film is Star (played by newcomer Sasha Lane), an 18-year-old woman in a bad relationship who decides at the spur of moment to join up with a van full of rowdy people she meets in a parking lot. The magazine crew is a cross section of the US, with people from all over. Some have their odd obsessions. One woman talks endlessly about how Darth Vader is misunderstood. Others have no particular traits beside drinking and smoking pot. The trip is partly an endless party, but one where people who don't sell enough risk being left at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.

And nobody wants the magazines, which are quite overpriced. The people have to sell themselves, usually with a sob story. Star is paired up with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the top seller. He tells her that the way to sell the magazine is to be what the prospective customers want. He has a different story for every person, claiming to be raising money for different schools or religious programs, or his own education. LaBeouf, known for his work in mainstream films like the Transformers series and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as well as art films like Nymphomaniac, gives a mostly laid back performance, with some over-the-top explosive moments.

The crew is operated by Krystal (Riley Keough), who keeps 80 percent of the money the sellers take in and makes no bones about exploiting them. Keough is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley. Krystal and Star have an awkward rivalry for the affection of Jake. But Star is in a powerless position, and can only watch helplessly when Krystal flaunts her superior status. Keough brings a tough aloofness to her role, never getting to friendly with the people she exploits, including the designated crew member she is sleeping with, whom she usually treats as a slave in front of the others.

Like most road films. American Honey shows a series of incidents without any real plot. Star in one key scene goes off with some wealthy Texans, including one played by actor Will Patton, who was in films such as Gone in 60 Seconds and Armageddon. An actual well-known face turning up is a bit of a shock, but the scene is good, with Star holding her own as she tries to sell them some magazines and they try to exploit her for a bit of amusement on a hot and boring day.

In her travels, she encounters all sorts and even takes a try at looking after some kids whose mother is a drug addict.

The film, though, clocks in at 163 minutes, which is two minutes longer than the standard release cut of te epic western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, for example. It is a bit of a long haul for mostly amateur actors with no real plot. The characters are interesting, and the panorama of rich and poor is fascinating, but there is no payoff at the end. The film could have been cut by half an hour or extended, with no real difference. The crew doesn't get anywhere, which is perhaps the point but one that is belabored a bit much.

Some of the new actors, especially Sasha Lane, will likely be seen again. In that way, you can see a future star making a debut, but American Honey with it meandering story and excessive length is perhaps something more geared to art film fans.

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