** out of ****
Rated R

strong sexual content, graphic nudity, strong language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse – all involving older teens and young adults)
Released: October 14, 2016
Runtime: 163 minutes
Director: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough

That is one depressing American portrait.

At nearly three hours, it’s also a grueling one. American Honey may posit a journey of self-discovery for its titular young woman who yearns to rise from poverty, but the trek it goes down tastes more like American Vinegar.

From lauded British director Andrea Arnold – who won the Academy Award for Best Short Film (Wasp) in 2005, along with acclaim for gritty indies like Fish Tank and her unique spin on Wuthering Heights that starred a black actor as Heathcliff – American Honey is fresh off of garnering the Jury Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.

Critics are raving again, too, to little surprise. Her view of America is pretty ugly, making anti-heroes of its road-tripping crew of Millennial white trash that con people by day and party hard by night. There’s no question it’s all vividly depicted, but for as unvarnished and daring as it all is, this in-your-face docu-style aesthetic comes off as faux (and nearly unbearable) realism, perhaps especially to the average viewer who’s not straining – like so many high-minded cinephiles – to find poetry within Arnold’s signature 1:33 aspect ratio frame (the square shape format of an old TV screen, not rectangular).

Indeed, American Honey may be rendered with stark realism but is only real-ish, and not particularly revealing.

If anything, the premise itself feels entirely contrived. Newcomer Sasha Lane makes her attention-grabbing debut as Star, an 18-year-old young lady desperate to escape the abusive scavenger existence of her low-to-no income Middle America squalor. Like an answer to a prayer she never prayed (this movie, incidentally, has a very negative view of God and those who believe in Him, complete with vulgar blasphemies), along comes a passenger van full of her peers – both in age and societal class – rolling through town as they cross the country in search of swindled money and good times.

And here’s the hardsell: they make their money off of hawking magazines door-to-door. In a day and age when both the product and method are antiquated (and the sellers are such obvious hucksters), it’s difficult buying the movie on its very basis as a credible window into a subculture (and generation) on the fringes. Just as these itinerant scammers peddle lies of broken pasts or educational ambitions to their would-be suburban dupes, the film seems to be making a disingenuous reach as well, insinuating that these overgrown and unregulated kids are somehow aspirational.

Aside from Star, they’re not looking to honestly work their way out of the unfortunate circumstances they grew up in, or aiming to build a better life for themselves (not even Jake, played with fiery magnetism by Shia LeBeouf, whose attraction to Star and sharing of “dreams” appears to be a con of its own, or at best momentary sincerity from a guy who ultimately can’t commit to anything genuine). These opportunistic and entitled vagabonds – led by a vicious team leader who’s a destructive piece of work herself – simply want to take advantage of the kindness of strangers to get drunk and high in the here and now. Spending three hours in their world isn’t fascinating; it’s punishing.

Simply put, American Honey portrays humanity at its most Darwinian. These young gypsies, generally speaking, are rather base and animalistic, bonded by an aggressive camaraderie, violent rituals, drug fueled fireside raves, and various forms of debasing carnality (yes, there are some raw sex scenes along the way). It’s no coincidence that writer/director Arnold draws recurring animal parallels throughout. There’s an undercurrent of survival of the fittest, not only with the traveling crew but even in those they encounter. It’s a world filled with ugly people, regardless of class.

Arnold provides rare grace notes, too, but they seem little more than nice gestures that aren’t quite the revelatory acts of personal clarity that they should be. Or, at least, this Odyssean descent begs to be made worthwhile but aimlessly never is. One simply wants to escape this environment, not engage or sympathize with it (which may be part of the point, at least for Star, thought that message is muddled).

It’s difficult to glean, actually, if Arnold herself is sympathetic to her characters or if she simply bears a condescending pity towards them. Her brand of observational realism is ultimately all surface, and lacks anything that’s intellectually, emotionally, or thematically compelling. Arnold throws a lot in our face yet its value is mostly shock, provoking visceral but not necessarily thoughtful reactions.

It’s not that Arnold’s vigilant lens lacks truth; there are some hard ones captured here, to be sure, and tragically so, particularly in how dreams for the poor seem so impossibly out of reach (thus making escapes into comatose meth-induced states a tempting resignation). But to claim, as the Cannes jury did in their award citation, that these characters show an “inner strength and dignity” is to give them and Arnold a credit of nobility they never truly earn or even aspire to. If anything, they revel in lacking virtue.

Only slightly more correct is the jury’s concluding sentiment that “Star and Jake haven’t lost their ability to dream and to transform themselves”. Ultimately that’s true for Star, but it’s in spite of her surroundings and of Jake himself. In the film’s final moments, Star experiences what is, in effect, a default baptism, symbolically cleansing her of the hardships from her past, both recent and long ago. Now wiser, she’s ready to move on.

We’re ready to move on, too, but for the worst reasons, and I’m dubious if we’re any wiser than we were three hours prior. Because really, the predominant take away of American Honey is merely to be more suspicious of your fellow man than you already are, and to take from them before they use you. That makes for a rather cynical tale of self-empowerment.

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