As improbable as it sounds, American Honey melds the sensibilities of disparate movies like Easy Rider and Lawrence of Arabia to craft a modern portrait of driftless youth. Director Andrea Arnold’s film is epic, funny, heartbreaking, and challenging. It captures the cynicism and hopelessness that characterizes the way many U.S. citizens view the American Dream. Through all the unfairness and terrible situations life throws at Star, Arnold’s main character, American Honey gives us a glimpse into the life of a survivor. Star refuses to be broken, and this quality allows for a hopeful ending to the movie that is both uplifting and defies easy explanation. In short, American Honey is a stunning achievement. It’s a movie that stirred my emotions and gave me a view into a world so different from my own that it might as well have been from an alien planet.
There’s no real plot to American Honey, and that’s to the film’s benefit. Star is a teenager with a broken and dangerous home life. Because the director seems to want to focus on pure experience here, she willfully leaves certain narrative aspects hazy. Star watches after what appear to be her young half-siblings, a boy and girl aged ten or so. They live with either Star’s father or her boyfriend, though it’s never really made clear. The man doesn’t look quite old enough to be her actual father, but when he drunkenly and aggressively begins to grope Star one afternoon, he calls himself her daddy, and we get the idea that these two have never before shared any kind of normal sexual relationship.
Star finds a possible way out when she meets Jake, who offers her a job with his “mag crew.” The rowdy and raucous group of kids Jake lives and works with travel from town-to-town where they sell magazines door-to-door by day, and party hard every night. What Jake fails to mention is how tough life on the road can be, especially under the watchful eye of the manager of the crew, the demanding and heartless Krystal. Star leaves her siblings at a Honky Tonk with their reluctant birth mother, who would rather line dance to the song “Copperhead Road” all night than look after her own children. Star has to lie about going to the bathroom, making a run for it instead, in order to try to force mom to take charge of her responsibilities.
From here, American Honey charts a two-and-a-half-hour odyssey into the heart of the real American Dream: cash and pleasure. Or, “make money, get turnt”, as rapper Carnage intones on his song “I Like Tuh” – one of the pulse-pounding tunes featured in American Honey’s infectious, hip hop-focused soundtrack. Just like Wyatt and Billy cruise down the highway to “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider, the pleasure seeking kids in the mag crew ride to their generation’s version of the same message. The characters in both movies could probably relate to each other through their roles as outcasts in a system that didn’t just leave them behind, but never really had room for them in the first place.
This theme of being outsiders unwelcome in the system is explored through the very casting of the film. Arnold populated her movie by practicing “street casting.” She went to parking lots, construction sites, and beaches to find young people on the fringes of society to become amateur actors. Arnold discovered the film’s Star, Sasha Lane, while Lane was on spring break with her friends. This technique paid off unbelievably well. There is an honesty, a total sincerity, to almost every performance Arnold captured on film. This is especially true of Lane. The inexperienced actress achieves a guilelessness on screen that is uniquely compelling.
There are some professional actors in the cast, including Jake, played by Shia LaBeouf, the most recognizable member of the mag crew. On screen, LaBeouf seems to feed off the energy of the mostly non-professional cast, because he, too, delivers a relaxed, seemingly effortless performance as the crew’s best hustler. His Svengali-like hold on Star gives American Honey its few real moments of narrative thrust. The complex dynamic between Star, Jake, and Krystal gives pathos to the movie’s final, open-ended scene.
American Honey’s 163-minute run time allows Arnold to fully explore the world she’s creating in a way most mainstream Hollywood features won’t allow. This does lead to a few moments that might have been better left on the cutting room floor, but they are few and far between. The conclusion of the sequence where Jake takes Star on her first magazine sales call is a good example.
Jake tries to impress upon Star the importance of being whatever the customer needs them to be in order to sell the magazines. Lying about who you are and the reason you are selling the magazines is all in a day’s work to get the cash out of the customer’s hands. Star won’t play along, though, when she and Jake find themselves in the living room of a wealthy woman and her daughter, who is celebrating her birthday with friends.
As Star watches as the rich girl and her friends dance lasciviously to rap music in the backyard, the mark doesn’t seem to buy Jake’s line of complete nonsense about selling the magazines for points toward college credit hours. Everything Star sees in the house represents something she has never had, and it makes her angry. Star berates and curses the mother for questioning Jakes’s story. As the mother asks them to leave, she tells Jake, “I’ve been trying to be Christian, but I can see the devil has a hold of the two of you.” Star sarcastically retorts, “I think the devil has a hold of your daughter.” It’s a moment that would have been subtler and smarter if Arnold’s direction had the conviction to let the audience draw that conclusion on their own without having a character say it outright.
A momentary misstep like that is basically inconsequential compared to the overall effect of the film. But it isn’t for every moviegoer. Those with objections to explicit sexual content should stay far away. Some might find Arnold’s use of an amateur actor for graphic sex scenes with a seasoned professional (in this case, LaBeouf) to be exploitative. Considering Sasha Lane supposedly told Arnold “If this is a porn or you try to kill me, I will kill you,” when the director first approached her, it’s easy to imagine Lane was quite comfortable in letting her boundaries be known. Anyone hungry for a rich, layered exploration of the passion of youth and what it means to be on the outside of acceptable society can’t do any better than American Honey.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- This is one of those movie-going experiences where I left feeling very different than when I arrived. American Honey is a sprawling, messy ride; one I was delighted to take.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- One subject I didn't tackle in my review is cultural appropriation. As a white guy, I don't feel qualified to speak for people of color about how white people use their music or style of dress as commodities. The overwhelming majority of the characters in American Honey are white, yet they listen almost exclusively to hip-hop and even throw the n-word around rather nonchalantly. Instead of giving my opinion on the subject, I'd rather defer to actual people of color, and how they reacted to this aspect of the film. You can read about that here and here.
- Andrea Arnold said reading about young people selling magazines door-to-door inspired her. I've been accosted by kids hawking magazines like this, but it was about 15 years ago. After we saw the movie, Rachel wondered aloud, "But, is this...still a thing?" Yes. Apparently it is.
- I wrote about the great soundtrack in the main review, but I forgot to mention that one of my favorites makes an appearance in an absolutely sublime sequence. The song is "Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star, and it's used spectacularly by Arnold in the film.