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‘American Honey’ is at once gorgeously humane and crassly hollow

Sasha Lane as Star and Shia LaBeouf as Jake in a scene from the movie "American Honey" directed by Andrea Arnold. (Pulse Films/TNS)

Sasha Lane as Star and Shia LaBeouf as Jake in a scene from the movie ‘American Honey’ directed by Andrea Arnold. (Pulse Films/TNS)

“American Honey” is bold and audacious. “American Honey” is trite and pithy. “American Honey” is gorgeous and sprawling. “American Honey” is grotesque and shallow. “American Honey” is soulful and humanistic. “American Honey” is condescending and aimless.  It’s a passionate film filled with rich performances and sumptuous craft. It’s also not clear with what it wants to say.

It makes such an effort to cast itself as a quintessential “American” story. We open on our hero, Star (Sasha Lane), scrounging for trash with two children she’s obligated to watch over. On a fateful encounter at a Stop and Shop, Star encounters Jake, who invites her to join his ragtag clan of magazine sellers. Despite his rat-tail and the fact that he’s played by Shia LaBeouf, Star falls for Jake, and she embarks on a cross-country trip across the American Midwest.

No one could ever call “American Honey” ugly. British director Andrea Arnold, known for the excellent “Fish Tank” and “Red Road,” lavishes her film with sumptuous cinematography. Wheat fields glisten in orange and yellow as the sun gleams down on our protagonists as they blast Kevin Gates. In the dead summer nights, fireflies swirl and twinkle about while fireworks crackle and pop. The result, at least on a technical level, is cinematic ecstasy.

While I hesitate to apply this label to something made with such care and compassion, “American Honey” cannot shake one simple fact: the movie is poverty porn – well-made, well-intentioned poverty porn. The film isn’t cynically made, and Arnold doesn’t treat her subjects with the same arm’s-length fascination or repulsion that director Harmony Korine applied to millennials in “Spring Breakers.”

All the same, a creepy, voyeuristic, anthropological gaze pervades the film’s subjects. “American Honey” always speaks from an outsider’s perspective, and I don’t mean Star. Arnold’s gaze walks a thin line between empathetic and exploitive, and it has an unfortunate tendency to veer into the latter.

When it comes to the low-income experience, I do not doubt, based on her earlier work, (and her upbringing too, but “Death of the Author” and all that jazz) that Andrea Arnold’s affection for societal rejects is genuine. Her main problem seems to be a desire to show the definitive take on what America is “about.” The film is called “American Honey,” though it might as well call itself “The Big American Movie.”

For example, there’s a scene where Star, who is biracial, is chastised by the leader of Jake’s crew (and the other member in their love triangle, a plot conflict that always makes me groan) while said leader is clad in a Confederate-style bikini.

There’s certainly something to be said about such an inherently loaded image, though your guess is as good as mine as to what. Arnold tosses a salad bowl of American iconography like McDonald’s, hip-hop, the Wild West, the highway, Daisy Dukes and fundamentalist Christianity in the hopes that the audience can find meaning in it – even though it all amounts to a glossy fart in the wind.

Still, if this film is the one that catapults Sasha Lane into stardom, it could not be more deserved. As Star, Lane is positively luminous. She takes a character that could have easily turned into a generic, scrappy underdog and injects it with raw magnetism. Her eyes convey equal parts sadness, naïveté, curiosity and wisdom, and we see the full gamut of these emotions with just a slight shift in her facial expression.

Her co-star surpasses expectations (super low ones, in this case) as well. Shia LaBeouf, an actor who usually never fails to find a unique way to irritate me, actually displays rare flashes of charm as dreamy bohemian Jake.

From his plagiarism of Yahoo Answers to his “I am not famous anymore” shenanigans, LaBeouf has always tried desperately to provoke, yet he finally seems to have found a sleazy groove that approaches real depth. (The fact that so many critics paid actual attention to his #AllMyMovies stunt remains one of the greatest “emperor has no clothes” moments in the history of criticism.)

It pains me to have such reservations over a film so obviously filled with life.

“American Honey” so desperately wants to be called a masterpiece that part of me is tempted to play along with its game. My critical conscience is filled with such conflict that it feels like it might tear asunder. It’s at once a great story poorly told and a weak story magnificently told. Imagine the world’s most eloquent, exquisitely crafted book report by a student who never actually read the book, and you’ve got “American Honey.”

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu.

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