In the olden days, when anyone referred to a “road movie,” it was usually in reference to the classic series of satirical films starring Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour. However, nowadays the “road movie” has become a rather different tradition, usually involving journeys of discovery and sometimes a little romance, with several great titles that include “Almost Famous,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Sideways” (it’s no coincidence that all of these won an Oscar for the screenplay). Now Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank,” “Red Road”) has decided to throw her hat in the ring with her own take on the tradition with her latest project entitled “American Honey.” With so much to live up to in this genre, will Arnold be able to make an impact with her epically-long road trip?
The film begins with teenager Star (Sasha Lane) trying to take care of her younger siblings. While trying to get back home, she encounters a group of rowdy youths that includes Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who decides to offer her a job selling magazine as part of their crew. She thinks it over for a little while, and after dumping the kids with their mother, meets up with the crew and heads off to Kansas City. Jake fills her in on what she needs to do, and pretty soon she’s trying to make money just like everyone else. However, along the way, she finds herself getting closer and closer to Jake, something that bothers the group’s leader, Krystal (Riley Keough), who has her own special relationship with him. Threatened with being left behind if she doesn’t start bringing in money, somehow she has to balance the job with her feelings for Jake.
No doubt Andrea Arnold had the best of intentions when putting together her version of the contemporary road film, attempting to present a young woman who gets swept up in a kind of adventure that takes her away from her everyday life of scrounging up food for her younger siblings. However, narrative issues crop up almost immediately as we quickly find that Arnold has very little to say about this young woman, and instead of telling a fully-formed story about her, she merely chooses to set her adrift with a ragtag group of wild characters in hopes that their rowdiness and eccentricities will be enough to distract you from the fact that there’s almost nothing in the way of plot to be found.
Because of this, the film’s extremely bloated 162-minute runtime is completely unforgiveable, especially when much of it is comprised of several unnecessary sequences of the group traveling, partying, or listening to/singing along to music (no doubt this was an attempt to recreate the famous “Tiny Dancer” sequence from “Almost Famous”). However, even putting those aside, this is a film that comes across as a collection of deleted scenes from a film that has a fleshed-out story, except we never get to see that film, only what was cut out of it. True, some road movies can be about a wandering, aimless journey, but when the film itself does that (and does it for nearly three hours), then clearly there are problems that needed to be addressed.
At the end of this long journey, there just isn’t much to learn about Star, Jake, or their relationship, mainly because the film never takes the time to fill us in on who they are and what they want from this whole venture. Unsurprisingly, it comes to a rather sudden end with no resolution, but it hasn’t had anything to say up to that point, so why start then? As an independent art project, “American Honey” might have worked, but as an attempt at a narrative feature that’s supposed to move us with its characters and story, it falls remarkably short.
“American Honey” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.33:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of decent quality. This being a very low budget film, the image isn’t going to look as good as others, but it’s still a mostly clear and very watchable picture throughout the lengthy presentation. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is excellent, giving you all of the dialogue and the pounding soundtrack in outstanding quality. Overall, the film has been given pretty good treatment, allowing for a fine experience in both areas.
Sasha Lane & Riley Keough on American Honey (6 Minutes): A featurette in which Lane and Keough discuss their experiences making the film.
Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” certainly looks pretty as we travel around America with a ragtag crew, but thanks to a meandering narrative, undeveloped characters, and a completely unforgiveable 162-minute runtime, it feels like nothing more than an over-extended collection of deleted scenes that adds up to very little. Arnold should have taken a page from previous films in the road movie genre, films that had full, rich stories to tell, with unforgettable characters that have you engaged for every mile of their journey. Without these important elements, even at nearly three hours long, it was destined to be an almost instantly forgettable experience.