Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 26, 2016)
Ah, the road movie, a genre we’ve come to know so well over the decades. 2016’s American Honey offers a coming of age twist to the notion.
18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) leads an unhappy, go-nowhere life in Oklahoma. One day she spies a van packed with young people and makes eye contact with one of them, a guy named Jake (Shia LaBeouf).
Star tracks this crew to a nearby motel and gets to know them. She learns they work as a traveling team of magazine sellers, and she decides to run away from home and join them. We see what happens to her along the way, with some emphasis on her burgeoning romance with Jake.
I’d never advocate that all movies need sympathetic characters to succeed, but I do think that a film devoid of personalities about whom we care becomes a tougher sell. Such is the case with Honey, a tale that forces us to spend nearly three hours with people we mostly don’t like.
I guess we’re supposed to invest in Star, as it’s her story and we can tell she lived a lot of rough times in her 18 years. At the start, we do find her to seem fairly sympathetic, as she’s stuck with a bad situation.
However, Honey sabotages viewer interest in Star, primarily due to the way she abandons her siblings early in the film. Actually, it’s never clear how – or if – Star is related to the little kids for whom she cares, but since Lane refers to them as Star’s siblings in an interview on this Blu-ray, I’ll defer to that assumption.
Whatever the case, we see that these kids live a miserable life in which neither parental figure seems to give two craps about them. Star acts as the children’s caretaker and appears to be the only person who keeps the kids afloat, but she eagerly abandons them.
I don’t view this as a fatal flaw, especially given Star’s youth – it’s much more difficult to fault an 18-year-old for this kind of judgment than it would be if Star were 28-years-old. Still, given that the siblings offer two of the movie’s very few sympathetic characters, it’s tough to let Star off the hook. Star’s decision to leave the children means the audience quickly finds a reason not to like her.
It doesn’t help that the movie does little to endear Star to the viewer as it progresses. Even with this abandonment, we’re inclined to root for Star because we can tell what a tough life she’s lived. She’s also our protagonist, so we naturally try to bond with her.
Star makes it tough, as she presents a generally unlikable character. She occasionally performs actions that mildly endear her to us, but usually she comes across as brittle and off-putting.
Again, I don’t argue that every movie needs to have likable characters. Some of the greatest films of all time feature reprehensible lead personalities with whom we never bond.
That said, while it’s illogical to expect every movie to boast likable characters, it’s not unreasonable for the viewer to get disenchanted with a movie that focuses on obnoxious, unpleasant personalities. These abound in Honey, a film packed with irritating folks.
Not every movie needs a tight narrative and a concise three-act structure, but it’d be nice to feel like the story goes somewhere. However, Honey just rambles incessantly with little obvious point or purpose.
Given the terrible quality of their lives, all the kids in the magazine crew seem oddly full of themselves. They’re preening examples of kids with way too much self-confidence in the face of their obvious limitations. They show off to each other in obnoxious ways that ensure the audience wants to punch each and every one of them in the head.
Again, some of this comes across as realistic. Most of us were pretty headstrong in our late teens/early 20s and probably thought more of ourselves than we deserved. In some ways, the movie gives us an accurate portrayal of these people.
That still doesn’t mean I want to spend 163 minutes with them, and Honey loses a lot of “reality points” due to its refusal to let anything bad happen to anyone. These characters routinely place themselves in harm’s way but never suffer any ill consequences.
This seems especially kooky given Star’s bizarre willingness to take rides from strange older men. Even when Star dallies in prostitution, she leaves the situation little worse for wear, as she gets a guy willing to pay her $1000 for nothing more than a quick rubby-tug and a peek at her privates.
Really? The Shrek movies offer more realism than that. I won’t argue that Honey needs a cliché scene in which Star tries to exit the situation and the guy rapes her, but at least that’d seem believable. On what planet would some oil worker shell out four figures just for a few minutes of a peep show?
Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to avoid the potentially trite scenes of Star as victim, and that’s fine, but the absence of any sequences in which Star or anyone else suffers the consequences of their foolhardy behavior stretches credulity to the breaking point. As I said, no one in the magazine crew ever experiences any real concerns, a choice that totally boggles the mind. I wouldn’t trust these incautious dimwits to order a chocolate shake without a bad outcome, much less travel around the country in shoddy conditions and escape unscathed.
So 163 minutes with a bunch of dumb as dirt losers gets old, and it even becomes tough to accept these kids as successful magazine salespeople. As the movie aptly points out, magazines don’t sell that well now, so the notion large teams of vendors could eke out a living – no matter how hardscrabble – doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The film does try to shift the focus toward the kids’ “self-selling” techniques, as it tells us that people buy their stories, not the magazines themselves. Fair enough – and I might swallow that if all the kids didn’t seem so scungy. They all look like meth addicts – why would anyone give them money and trust them to follow through with the promised product?
I read some other reviews of Honey from people who disliked it initially but warmed up to it as they thought about it. As I write this review, my inclination goes the other way. No, I didn’t much enjoy the 163 minutes I spent with it, but I didn’t hate it either.
The more I think about Honey, though, the less enchanted I become. Its flaws seem more evident and its positives fade to the background. If you want to watch 163 minutes of characters who play a lot of hip-hop, give each other crap and act obnoxious without a sliver of self-awareness or growth, Honey will work for you.