by Michael B. Hock
Despite my love of terrible movies, I fully know what goes into making a good one. I can analyze what makes a great movie, and even if I don’t personally like it, I can tell you why it may be considered “good.” Take for instance: Gravity, a movie that won all sorts of accolades but I personally disliked. I disliked it mostly because I felt the protagonist wasn’t believable – it doesn’t matter who they send into space, they would not spend as much time as Sandra Bullock’s character did “giving up.”. If you think about it, she spends a large portion of the movie terrified (rightly so) but also a large portion of the movie essentially giving up, which I don’t want to see in a movie. But I can tell you it was beautifully filmed, there was some good attention to detail, many of the shots fed into the next one, the music was used effectively to convey the journey… the movie was put together well, just parts of it didn’t sit right with me.
So, when a movie like American Honey comes along, and gets nothing but praise from critics, I’m interested in seeing it. This is where I start to be afraid that maybe there’s something I fundamentally don’t understand about movie criticism. Because where a lot people saw a beautifully constructed film that was light on plot but told a compelling story underneath, I saw one that was largely aimless, made very little sense, tried to cover all of that up with music, and failed on almost every level.
American Honey, a largely improvised film, tells the story-ish of Star (Sasha Lane), a young woman who wants to escape her abusive home life. Or maybe she doesn’t. She doesn’t seem to like it very much, but is content in staying in it at least to take care of her younger siblings, until she flirts with Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf, showing us what he can do when he’s not the comic relief). Then she’s content to escape her sexually abusive father (or half father) and dump her brother and sister with their mother, who doesn’t bother to stop line dancing long enough to listen or care about the situation.
The best part is, don’t worry about the kids too hard, they’ll only be mentioned one other time in the first 30 minutes of the film, and then they’ll never be referenced or thought about again for the rest of the three hour runtime.
From there, Star starts her adventures (?) selling magazines for a young woman named Krystal (Riley Keough) in between long stretches of dialogue and 20 or 30 sing alongs to let you know all of the quirky kids Krystal has assembled are bonding. Oh, and she and Jake might be falling in love. I don’t know. It could also be a scam. I don’t mean this in a “hey interpret it as you feel” kind of way, I mean it in a way that’s like, the movie clearly hasn’t decided, either.
If it sounds like I’m being extra harsh on this film, it’s because I am. This blog is something I put together as a hobby – I’m not being paid, I don’t get to see movies in advance. I like to write about movies. And I was excited for American Honey. I was told it was a groundbreaking film. I was excited to see the largely improvised script, the actors who were real kids rather than a 40 year old in extra makeup. I was excited because I heard about the music and the lingering scenes. That can be a detriment or an advantage, depending on the movie. In this case, the movie was built up, so I had high expectations, but not unrealistic ones. But this movie failed. It just failed even if I had low expectations. I just don’t feel it was put together effectively, almost to the point that I genuinely have to start wondering about other critics, and what they watched.
i won’t argue that this is a beautifully filmed movie. Many camera shots and long scenes focus on the American landscape and set a certain appeal for just going off and driving somewhere. I also appreciated the film’s attempted commentary on rich vs. poor. Many (many) of the neighborhoods that the kids attempt to sell in are extra-rich. But the only time we really spend with these rich characters is limited, and there’s clearly the agenda that they are up to something extra. Less time is spent with the poor characters, and even then there’s an over the top-ness that frequently takes you out of the movie, and that’s not something that you want to occur in a nearly three hour movie.
Take for instance the first house that Jake and Star try to sell to is an ultra-rich woman who’s daughter spends most of the time dancing sexually in the background. It’s clear that this bothers Star – from her abusive household (again after this scene, not really ever referenced) but the scene goes on too long, lingers not just on the daughter too much but on Jake’s reaction to the daughter (constantly staring at her) until the pair is thrown out of the house. The scene never really pays off down the road, so to speak, it gives Star a chance to learn a lesson about selling these fake magazines, which is she is going to have to compromise herself… which she immediately argues with. Then she starts to compromise herself, but there’s no real buildup. Just the scenes.
The film itself tries to be too much. Is it about the American youth experience, where they try to find themselves? Or is it a story about Star trying to find herself, in her situation?
Speaking of situations… I understand that all stories don’t need to be love stories, but the central love story/conflict makes so little sense that I stopped caring about it by the time the movie was halfway through. Jake and Star are immediately attracted to each other, and star their romance with Krystal’s objections. (Spoilers for the end of the movie. If you’re currently trapped in a viewing, this might help.) It’s largely implied that Jake and Krystal have a relationship, mostly built on power – Krystal loves her power – and Star is interfering with that. Towards the end Krystal makes her big villain speech (if that’s what she is), and two guys wake up in her bed, and she announces that she used Jake to recruit young women, and he gets extra money to bring them in, and he’s gone. But it’s ok, he shows up a few minutes later, back in the van, as if nothing happened, leading to the ending. So, was it all a game to make Star compromise herself?
This literally makes no sense, unless it was Krystal’s need to “break” Star. But that is literally the only other way – she does this with no other kids, we don’t see any other evidence of this, and it comes out of nowhere narratively. It’s frustrating.
This is indicative of the movie in general. I understand that part of the improvised scenes and the light plot is supposed to represent the aimlessness of these kids’ lives, but it’s not used effectively. There is nothing narratively holding the film together, it’s a loose collection of scenes tied together by musical montage or singalong after singalong after singalong. Which can work, but nothing drives anything that could be said for the plot forward. Not every movie has to have a wonderful, put together plot that leads to revelation after revelation. But something has to drive the movie itself forward, or the characters forward or something.
I get that this is a critical darling. I get that I maybe just don’t “get something.” but I’m not seeing how this is a wonderful movie. I’m seeing a beautifully filmed movie that lacks any sense of cohesion or storytelling.