American Honey: Two hours and forty-three minutes of Ryan McGinley‘s Instagram feed, if he still has one. Or two hours and forty-three minutes of Larry Clark’s Tulsa updated for the century of Fetty Wap and fracking. Well anyway it’s definitely two hours and forty-three minutes. It is way too long and self-indulgent; I really wonder how Arnold got away without having to edit more. I’m thrilled when she cuts away to a dog wearing a superman cape in the parking lot of a crap motel. Pow! Super memorable image. But then a minute later she cuts to the dog again. And after another minute she cuts to it again, and stays on it for a good thirty seconds, while it has a pee. The movie’s full of this kind of overkill. No bee, butterfly, beetle, or grasshopper on Arnold’s set failed to get filmed, and not one of them wound up on the cutting room floor. The first bug crawling up a weed in the hazy honey light of a Kansas sunset adds to the atmosphere. The tenth makes you want to call Orkin.
The star of this movie is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who we get to know very intimately, as he draws a great deal of attention to himself. His story is deeply tragic. He can’t hold the camera steady, never learned to focus, and has a pathological obsession with lens flare. I sentence him to watch a week’s worth of Peckinpah — no, better, Cassavetes –to learn that you don’t have to jitter the camera constantly to infuse your mise with unease and spontaneity.
The movie’s formal failures are real and dispiriting, but what depresses me most is its content. Initial appearances suggest that Arnold’s primary goal is to celebrate the joys of American youth culture — getting high, getting laid, singing along to pop songs with your friends, eating junk food, falling in love, spoofing grownups, above all driving around — but that she also wants to expose some peculiarly American strains of loneliness, danger, and fear, through her depictions of poverty, abuse, and waste. I approve of both these messages! But unfortunately, Arnold drastically underrealizes both. The joy parts don’t seem very joyful at all, mostly because the kids on the mag crew whose adventures make up the plot of this movie don’t really seem to give much of a damn about each other. Their solidarity of purpose consists mainly of sharing joints and hooking up, and further we come to understand that they are explicitly in a zero-sum competition with one another, because if you don’t generate profit, you get dumped. So much for sticking it to the man; these kids are near-perfect little capitalists. Meanwhile, Arnold’s depiction of the dark side of these characters’ situation is so misguided it falls off a cliff into a chasm of irresponsibility. We do see children living in poverty and under threat of abuse, but the mag crew, our footloose heroes, never suffer any of the very real tragedies that their nonfictional counterparts do. If you live like these kids, bad things happen, such as rape, human trafficking, assault, drug overdoses, hunger, untreated illness, unintended pregnancies, police harassment, etc. We see none of that in American Honey. Arnold’s is a world where a teenager in a bikini can get into a car with three strange men, or a lonely truck driver, and not only have nothing go wrong, but make money and have fun. It’s absolutely insane.
It was late when I finished this, but I stayed up a little longer to watch some of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This movie, thirty four years old, does such a better job of conveying both the joy and the terror of being a teenager in America it’s not even funny. Literally, it’s not funny. Sure, there’s a lot of dated, goofy stuff in there. But you’re remembering the wrong stuff. Sean Penn is fun, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s story is the real one here. Her highs are transcendent, and her sorrows are crushing. I think the main reason the emotional contours of Heckerling’s story are so much more satisfying is that the relationships between the kids — whether healthy or unhealthy — seem real, rather than simulated.