I once ate half a gallon of strawberry ice cream at one sitting to join a club. The first pint was delicious. The second was a diminished pleasure but enjoyable. The third was a chore. The fourth was a bore.
I had the same reaction to “American Honey,” Andrea Arnold’s two-hour and 43-minute, documentary-style look at a teenager who runs away from abusive/neglectful parents to join a shady group of travelers.
The naive Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) has an expressive face, wary compassion and a personality worth getting to know. She climbs into a van full of teens managed by insolent Krystal (Riley Keough), who drops them off in neighborhoods to sell magazines. Once inside the houses, they are free to steal jewelry, memorabilia, a car, even a dog.
Krystal keeps crew chief Jake (Shia LaBoeuf) on a short leash: He trains recruits and sleeps with most of the girls but always comes back to the boss. Or does he? Star, the first person to ask about his long-term plans, thinks she might win Jake away from Krystal and thievery.
So far, so good. But so far is as far as the movie goes.
A dozen supporting characters leave no impression. We get no back story on Krystal, who remains cranky and skanky, or Jake. LaBoeuf makes his character come alive through personal charisma – you read that correctly – but Jake has no shape otherwise.
So we fall back on Star, the only person who goes on any emotional journey. The final ambiguous shot will leave you wondering where exactly it took her and where we’re supposed to think she’ll go next.
Writer-director Arnold has compassion for the poor, while viewing them with an unflinching eye. She doesn’t romanticize characters, including the tender but corruptible Star. At the same time, she shows how some of us start our lives with winged shoes and some immediately get fitted for a ball-and-chain.
She’s less strong on details. I never believed prosperous people would invite strangers who stank of pot and booze into their homes, let along teens with multiple piercings, filthy clothes, insolent manners and gangster-style tattoos. (My favorite: a nearly life-sized pair of revolvers.)
Arnold’s films, including “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights,” rely more on atmosphere than plotting and characterization. Atmosphere can take you a long way, especially when underpinned by a strong music score and Robbie Ryan’s dreamlike cinematography – but only half as long as “American Honey” lasts.
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Writer-director: Andrea Arnold
Length: 163 minutes
Rating: R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse – all involving teens)
Chapel Hill: Chelsea.