Scrolling Headlines:

UMass hockey competes hard, falls to No. 10 Providence College in overtime -

February 26, 2017

Overtime goal hands UMass hockey its 15th straight loss in regular season finale -

February 26, 2017

Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous gives talk at UMass -

February 25, 2017

Anti-racism workshop teaches tactics to fight oppression in community -

February 25, 2017

Providence power play haunts UMass hockey in 6-2 loss -

February 25, 2017

UMass hockey falls to No. 10 Providence on Senior Night at the Mullins center -

February 25, 2017

UMass men’s basketball falters in the second half, falling to George Washington 83-67 Thursday -

February 24, 2017

UPDATE: SGA announces second and third artist for ‘Mullins Live!’ -

February 23, 2017

Divest UMass and STPEC host panel on building ‘solidarity economies’ in the Trump era -

February 23, 2017

UMass women’s basketball losing streak extends to 10 games after loss to URI -

February 23, 2017

Sixth annual Advocacy Day set to take place March 1 -

February 23, 2017

Panel discusses racial, sexual and psychological violence in response to art exhibit -

February 23, 2017

Judy Dixon enters final season with UMass tennis with simple message: One match at a time -

February 23, 2017

UMass baseball enduring early-season limitation in playing in New England -

February 23, 2017

Minutewomen softball begins season with cross-country travel, string of tournaments -

February 23, 2017

UMass baseball looks to bounce back from disappointing 2016 season -

February 23, 2017

UMass women’s lacrosse senior Hannah Murphy is Angela McMahon’s latest legend in the making -

February 23, 2017

UMass women’s lacrosse senior defenders accept leadership roles in quest for ninth consecutive Atlantic 10 Championship -

February 23, 2017

Kelsey McGovern rejoins UMass women’s lacrosse as an assistant coach after starring for Minutewomen -

February 23, 2017

UMass men’s lacrosse looks to continue improving throughout 2017 season -

February 23, 2017

‘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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