In American Honey, her 162-minute fourth feature (and the first she's made in the United States), British director Andrea Arnold sets an infatuation-at-first-sight encounter to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” a conversation about dreams to Bruce Springsteen singing “Dream Baby Dream” and a moment of camaraderie among itinerant youngsters traveling across the American heartland to — yes — Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey.”
These scenes are not the movie’s problem. In fact, they’re among its most cathartic, as they're daringly obvious and openhearted, even ridiculous, in their pursuit of an emotion or idea. They generate the precious few bursts of seeming spontaneity: the flirty, stuck-out tongue 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) throws at Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a Rihanna-blasting department store; the sweet little wink-back QT (Veronica Ezell, one of the non-actors Arnold enlisted to fill out the dozen-strong ensemble) sends to Star over the Lady Antebellum chorus.
These sequences, however, are the exception: Most of American Honey sees Arnold either mounting vague attempts at naturalistic detail or satisfying more facile, disingenuous instincts. Cases of the former usually involve the director inserting random shots of bugs and plants and horses and dogs; in the latter scenarios, she resorts to an even more dispiriting strategy: shock tactics. Want to turn a nothing scene in a motel room into something sexy and controversial? Show Riley Keough, the lead of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, getting lotioned up by LaBeouf while wearing a Confederate-flag bikini. Want to ensure that viewers understand the hopelessness of Star’s home life? Don’t just show her drunk stepfather squeezing her butt and licking her neck — make certain he has a Confederate flag behind his television, too.
Arnold has a history of directing nonprofessionals, and here, as with Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (2011), the director gets truly fiery work out of an unknown — the dreadlocked Lane was a college freshman on spring break when Arnold discovered her. But the casting elsewhere is confused. LaBeouf, though doing fine work, seems to have been hired just so that his performance — he wears an eyebrow earring, mumble-flubs his lines and carries himself with an air of mysterious/threatening eroticism — could piggyback on the critical cachet of the James Franco–in–Spring Breakers brand. And Arielle Holmes, the revelation of Josh and Benny Safdie’s great Heaven Knows What (based on Holmes’ experiences as a heroin addict), plays a very minor part as a Darth Vader–obsessed girl named Pagan because — well, maybe someone on the American Honey team saw Heaven Knows What and thought a beautiful junkie would fit in among poor white people who like to get drunk and high?
American Honey does boast one legitimate, out-of-nowhere casting coup. After an argument in a wealthy neighborhood, Star ditches Jake and hops into a plush Buick convertible occupied by three middle-aged cowboy types. She vents about her work, and the guy in the back seat twists open a beer for her. After a few lines of dialogue, it becomes clear that this kind-seeming, slightly tipsy stranger with a mustache, sunglasses and hat is played by Will Patton, the stalwart character actor known, among many other cherishable roles, as the coach who passionately delivers the title line in Remember the Titans. The trio invite Star to their place, fire up steaks and bring out some mezcal. Star knocks back the stuff, no problem — to the astonishment of Patton's character, who rifles off sloshed and hilarious observations, calling mezcal a “spooky, powerful drink” and saying, awestruck, “Women can’t normally handle that.” Star keeps drinking and hurls Patton into a pool. Then Jake materializes with a gun.
This is an actual movie scene, with people, jokes, suspense, intrigue. Jake’s inability to handle his firearm has been cleverly established earlier, in a seemingly tossed-off interaction — a rare instance of calculated narrative setup in this willfully restless project. The majority of American Honey has Arnold working overtime to make her movie seem important or scandalous: There are puzzling stabs at profundity (Star engaging in a preternaturally calm stare-down with a bear), punchline-level characterizations of one-scene characters (Star’s first potential customer turns out to be a God-fearing Christian) and gratuitous images of poverty (Star discovering a strung-out mother in a run-down home, The Wendy Williams Show playing to no one on a TV).
The mezcal scene is of a different order; Arnold, rather than just driving home a predetermined effect, seems herself to be beguiled by the action — by Patton’s slurring delivery and Star’s exuberance, even by the plate of raw steaks that gets shattered by Jake’s bullets. Were Arnold not so concerned with making the rest of the movie into a Big Deal, American Honey as a whole might have been this magical.