American Honey really wants you to think it's as good as Spring Breakers... but it's not
Kristen Stewart and Alicia Cargile dancing on the famous red steps in Cannes alongside the American Honey cast, including Shia LaBeouf? It was one of the more memorable moments from May's otherwise ultra-formal film festival. The couple attended to show support to Kristen's friends, who are in the film — including Riley Keough — and they danced, held hands, and made their red carpet debut.
The soundtrack to the Cannes dance party? E-40's Choices (Yup). It has a chorus that repeats the line, "everybody get choices," and like most music played before a Cannes premiere, it is prominently featured in the film.
So, when American Honey screened at TIFF, I was not surprised to hear the song on the soundtrack. Instead, what interested me, was the energy of the dance party when it started playing on-screen. Much like on the Croisette, the cast was jubilant. It plays early on in the film, before a pretty dark turn.
Newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star, a teenage drifter who joins a youth-run magazine-selling con artist crew in an effort to establish her own financial freedom and live her best life. She signs a deal with Shia's character, and immediately, the viewer can tell this is a bad idea. The letterhead he presents her is anything but formal or properly researched, it's basically what a scammer would force somebody young and unassuming to sign for a bogus "LLC" sales job. He gives her a notebook with stickers for her to use on her door-to-door runs, which she takes as a token of greater intimacy. A crush begins to form almost instantly, and it's clear she's being groomed for something more than simply magazine sales. Shia's character is ready and waiting to prey on her innocence. She's sold on a visit to the Emerald City (or Kansas), and as the movie hammers over and over, she learns that Dorothy's native land is anything but home.
Shia's Jake and Riley's Krystal get a cut of each sale, and enforce unreasonable targets on their crew of misfit teens in order to keep raking it in. Each day, Krystal drives the a gaggle of young adults to different neighbourhoods to sell subscriptions for a fixed time, before shepherding them back to a motel where the girls bunk with the girls, and the boys bunk with the boys.
The film centers around the promise of freedom, and the need to belong. The teenage magazine trade leaves Star hopeful for opportunity and financial mobility, but the reality is she's even more trapped than she ever felt before. To hype up the squad, Krystal and Jake lead them in varying cult-like sing-a-longs to the aforementioned Choices (Yup), and, memorably, Rihanna's We Found Love. The promise of freedom mixed with groupthink and the rush of ripping somebody off unites the aimless youth as they hang in a van and hit up others for money across the U.S.
American Honey is just as aimless as its subjects. Like all road trips, it intentionally runs much longer than you think it would (nearly three hours) with scenes involving compromise and coercion and explicit (tampon) sex or suggestive drug use. They sing together about their choices, when they truly have no freedom. It's almost impossible to not compare the movie to the more-shocking Kids, which also had a Cannes-related origin story.
I had to leave the American Honey screening for about half an hour to go to a TIFF-related meeting. I was reassured by my colleagues who had watched the entire film that I missed very little about the characters' (and Star's) descent in the film, and was able to pick right back up where I left off. American Honey AKA "they're still in the van, and they're still driving." There's a lot less shock value in American Honey than in Kids, but it's still a cautionary tale about broken promises and even bigger dreams of freedom.
It's well-made, and well-cast, but the craftsmanship would have benefited from a more discerning eye. The movie's runtime and reliance on repetition of the same routine makes the audience feel as trapped as Star is. It's just so much of the same thing that it minimizes the film's impact and what it's trying to say about this real-life epidemic in the States. Hey, the Times is on it too.
American Honey is a searing portrait about the dangers of what's involved in making a quick buck. Sasha Lane's portrayal of Star as a fragile teen is pretty heartbreaking to watch, but her performance is lost in this haphazard ramble (and mess) of a movie. Sure, Riley stands out with her "It" and her cold, steely distance from Star, but do yourself a favour and watch her in the Soderbergh series, The Girlfriend Experience, instead. The film commits to this directionless narrative (and was reportedly shot with an outline as opposed to a script), but if you're dying to see the highlights, just go back to that Cannes dance party and save yourself nearly three hours.
A second opinion beyond the creative echo chamber could have saved this movie. American Honey wants to be the next Spring Breakers, but its message is lost on the road.
Michael Tran/ Anita Zvonar Photography/ C Flanigan/ Getty Images