ReelBob: ‘American Honey’
By Bob Bloom
“American Honey” is an odyssey through a panorama of America most of us rarely see.
The film follows a group of disenfranchised and disaffected youths who travel the Midwest to earn money by selling magazine subscriptions that nobody wants to buy.
These teenage boys and girls cram into a van and travel from place to place, sleeping in cheap motels and going door-to-door in wealthy neighborhoods in which they can only dream of living.
You feel sorry for these young people, while at the same time admiring their spunk and drive. They perceive what they do as a great adventure — allowing them freedom to travel, as well as escape from abusive and dysfunctional family environments.
The film has a Dickensian tone to it, as the youngsters must make sales daily or be stranded on the spot.
The focus of this 162-minute feature is Star (Sasha Lane), who flees her troubled home to join the traveling sales crew run by Krystal (Riley Keough) and her top seller, Jake (Shia LaBeouf).
An immediate and flirtatious attraction is sparked between Star and Jake. That relationship is the centerpiece of the movie.
The film follows Star’s gradual acceptance into the group she learns and understands the rules of this very small and tight community.
Lane’s performance holds your attention. She acts tough, yet underneath she is scarred and vulnerable. She sees the group as the family she wishes she had back home.
LaBeouf gives a finely etched performance. His Jake is a huckster and con man, who claims he loves Star. He opens up to her about his dreams for the future — yet, you do not fully trust his sincerity.
Harking back to the movie’s Dickensian aura, Jake would be Fagin, wooing the group — especially the girls — to keep them motivated to continue the daily grind of going from door to door.
And if Jake is Fagin, then Keough’s Krystal could be the menacing Bill Sykes — only she is lethal with her words. Her demeanor befits her name. She is cold and heartless. Despite being only a few years older than her employees, she ruthlessly pushes them through threats of abandonment, intimidation and punishment for poor salesmanship.
“American Honey” is a complex movie. Its subject matter is bleak and dark, yet the free-wheeling, optimistic spirit of the group keeps the movie grounded enough that some sunshine seeps in to give you hope for the future.
Writer-director Andrea Arnold creates empathy for these young people. She is more comfortable explaining, rather than exploiting, them and their situation.
If “American Honey” has a drawback, it’s the running time. At times, it feels repetitious, especially the many sequences of the byplay between the teens while traveling the van.
More interactions between the young sales corps and potential customers would have been more interesting to examine.
That aside, the mood of “American Honey” is, at times, difficult to accept. However, it offers an appealing look at a slice of Americana that many of us have never seen — or simply ignored.
Bob Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom.
3½ stars out of 4
(R), sexual content, nudity, language, drug and alcohol use