With a booming, singalong soundtrack of last year’s most infectious club rap, Instagram photography of glistening saturation, and a vanload of hip low class white youths driving round the country selling magazines to fuel their party-on-the-go lifestyle, British director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) shoots for the stars in her attempt at a lyrical road trip epic, American Honey. Instead, it veers well past the impressionistic portrait of a desperate teenage girl’s impulsive grasp at both at adulthood (a job, a serious romance) and girlhood (a posse of party-hungry peers, a crush) it's aiming for and hits squarely in the category of kitsch.
American Honey tries to approach its American subculture—wild flung, dispossessed quasi-poor whites who pull heavily from both African-American culture and college frat priorities and style—with a naïveté flush with a sensual, free-flowing and empathetic appreciation of American vivacity. In debut lead actress Sasha Lane, playing the main runaway who joins the traveling saleskids because she falls for their cocky mascot (played by Shia LaBeouf), the film gets as close as it ever will to a tangible feeling of authenticity. With Lane and her winning intuition to smile, dimple-cheeked with enjoyment, at most of what the world throws at her, the film nails a perceptive, personal emotional truth. Simple shots—and there are plenty of them—observing Lane smoking, looking out the window of the van, as the group exuberantly raps at the top of their lungs, nails the off-hand, sensitive sensibility so much of the film is going for.
But Arnold’s overlong but strangely unexpansive picture of truly exaggerated Americana lacks the critical distance of a film like Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers (which American Honey has much in common with, down to the stunt casting of LaBeouf akin to James Franco in that film), taking her white youths at oversimplified face value. Korine's hypnotic and unwieldy film, while similarly immersive, saw the lifestyle and philosophy of its revelers with a distance that understood them as constantly acting, their inner selves difficult to read behind lives lived as performance art, and the movie that captured it a hybrid between a normal film and a gallery object. Similarly, despite its touristic Southern curiosity, American Honey misses the tactile, lived texture and fierce dedication to outcast American marginals as documentarian Roberto Minervini’s grim Louisiana documentary that premiered in Cannes last year, The Other Side. That film reeked of danger and filmmaking risk taken to show us an uncouth, unreported corner of the country. American Honey sticks to the surface, to what the group thinks is cool, never going so far even in its extreme runtime to, say, define any of the group individually, to show how they interact as a community, workforce or friends, how they live their unusual daily lives, where they buy booze, where they eat, who they are—or think they are. Fueled by Sasha Lane’s endearing emotional sensibility, the film only seems to revel in rather than explore or question the vividly cartoonish veneer of decidedly white, small town, low class hipster Americana.