Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a sprawling, ugly, joyous epic that is about fleeting youth, the American recession, foolish love and everything in between. I saw this film a couple months ago and I liked it. When I started writing this piece, I decided to turn it on in the background to refresh my memory (and it’s on Amazon Prime!), and I found myself completely sucked in. In fact, I love this movie so much, I am having a hard time expressing it. If nothing else, what American Honey is, is magical.
But it might not sound that way: Star (Sasha Lane, in a stunning debut) is a teenager with no hope; she dumpster dives for groceries, takes care of her two younger siblings, and is sexually abused by her step father. Star’s life changes when she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in an incredibly depressing grocery store, when they lock eyes while Rhianna’s “We Found Love” blasts on the speakers. It’s a hopeless place, indeed. Star joins Jake on a mag crew (a group of aimless teens on an endless road trip selling magazines door to door), a job that seems to garner them little profits and even less prospects.
In fact, the film has all the trimmings of an exploitative-filled mess a la Harmony Korine or Larry Clarke. The mag crew is filled with grimy, young, white lower class looking (non)actors, with bad teeth and blotchy skin. They love hip hop and don’t for a second hesitate to sing along (including using the N word). They marvel at the tall buildings in Kansas City like they are the Empire State Building. They fight, they love, and they are a motley crew with absolutely no direction. And they are Star’s new family.
Arnold and her cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, make the film astonishingly beautiful even in this depressed and sometimes ugly part of America. The crew travels around the Midwest, from Oklahoma to Kansas and then up into North Dakota and everywhere (which seems like no where) in between. Arnold uses her roving camera to capture moments of exquisite beauty, such as the way the light looks in the afternoon, a bonfire at night, and blades of grass with insects on them. The film is a travelogue, episodic in nature but, even at 162 minutes the film, never drags. It can be dreamlike one moment, then deliberate the next, each episode flowing into one another. Arnold uses setting and details like costume so well; everything feels very real but also cinematic, which is an incredibly difficult balance. It doesn’t veer into documentary or cinema verité, but American Honey and its characters nevertheless feel incredibly real.
Sasha Lane as Star is the open heart of the movie, and she is an amazing find. She is so natural and without pretense but so confident at the same time, like a seasoned actor would be. Star is constantly observing those around her, learning and adapting to whatever situation she is in. In Lane’s face, you know exactly what she is feeling and thinking. Star is naive but also street smart. She is fearless and strong and above all. She is never a victim. In so many films about young girls like Star, you are dreading what is going to happen to them, expecting them to be raped or murdered or just generally abused. This isn’t to say Star doesn’t get in some dangerous situations (multiple times she meets older men and finds herself in situations that are incredibly tense). But each time, Star (mostly) comes out on top. It’s a nice change from the victimization of young women you often see in indie films.
American Honey is also a highly dysfunctional but searingly sweet love story. I have never really responded to Shia LaBeouf, perhaps more for his public persona than his performances, but he is incredible in the film. Jake is a scumbag with a heart of gold: he is the number one seller on the mag crew and trains the recruits for Crystal (Riley Keough, so delightfully trashy and icy), who runs the crew. You get the feeling that Jake, with his suspenders and rat tail, has done the routine with all the girls in the van, trained them, probably slept with them, but you also get the feeling that Star is different. She is in awe of him at first, but immediately sees his bullshit, and calls him on the dishonest nature of selling these magazines, which are mostly done through deceit and lies made up by the mag crew to garner sympathy.
Lane and LaBeouf have a white hot chemistry that feels very dangerous and very real. As a viewer, you are torn because the relationship seems doomed from the start. At the same time, though, I also couldn’t help but root for them. I think Arnold puts you so much in Star’s mind that you become infatuated with Jake and can’t wait to see him again (for us, on screen). One scene, in particular, in which they drive together in a convertible in the country and the radio blasts “Fade into You” by Mazzy Star (a 90s song you might not know the name of but you have probably heard) is one of the most romantic moments I have ever seen in cinema: it perfectly captures the kind of moment you want to last forever, the moments of falling in love, moments of pure joy. It’s simply magical and something I could watch on a loop. Like so many of the moments in American Honey, however fleeting, as a viewer, you wish they could last forever.