Directed by: Andrea Arnold.
Written by: Andrea Arnold.
Starring: Sasha Lane (Star), Shia LaBeouf (Jake), Riley Keough (Krystal), McCaul Lombardi (Corey), Arielle Holmes (Pagan), Crystal Ice (Katness), Veronica Ezell (QT), Chad Cox (Billy), Garry Howell (Austin), Kenneth Kory Tucker (Sean), Raymond Coalson (JJ), Isaiah Stone (Kalium), Dakota Powers (Runt), Shawna Rae Moseley (Shaunte), Chris Wright (Riley), Summer Hunsaker (Kelsey), Brody Hunsaker (Rubin), Johnny Pierce II (Nathan), Chasity Hunsaker (Misty), Michael Hunsaker (Logan), Kaylin Mally (Destiny), Laura Kirk (Laura), Will Patton (Backseat), Daran Shinn (Front Seat Cowboy), Sam Williamson (Driving Cowboy), Bruce Gregory (Mitchell).
Donald Trump is name checked early in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey – and while Arnold would have no real clue that Trump would become a serious Presidential contender when she shot the film (it was finished by May of this year, when it premiered at Cannes) – I couldn’t help but think about Trump numerous times throughout Arnold’s wonderful new film. The film takes place in the Midwest and South of the United States – and centers on a group of young people from around America (all of whom are, tellingly, white) who travel around in a large, white panel van – being dropped off every day in residential neighborhoods trying to sell magazine subscriptions. The movie knows that selling these is hopelessly outdated, as do the kids selling them. What they are really trying to do however is trying to guilt people into buying them. Often they are let off in well off neighborhoods – places where they never see any kids like this on a day-to-day basis, and perhaps they can alleviate some of the guilt they feel for being so well off by paying $40 for a magazine subscription they do not want. In American Honey, Arnold is showing the audience those left behind in America – and some of those doing the leaving. And yet, as grim as that sounds, American Honey is alive in a way few films are – the film is a sprawling Americana tapestry that is beautiful to look at, contains a real love story, and is an iTunes musical filled with joyous pop songs from the beginning to the end of 163 minute runtime.
The film centers on Star (the wonderful newcomer Sasha Lane), an 18 year old girl who we first meet dumpster diving with her two younger siblings – feeling excited when they score a full, uncooked chicken. She catches site of the van that will play such a large role later in the film, and is drawn to it – dragging her siblings across the street and into a Walmart, as the gaggle of young people spill out of it. It’s in the store, that she locks eyes with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) as he dances to Calvin Harris & Rihanna’s “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” in the checkout line. Jake asks her to come with them – and at first she resists. We do see her home life though – a father (stepfather?) and a creepy slow dance he forces upon her and we intuit he has forced even worse things on her in the past, and a mother who hangs out in a bar – not a sad sack on a barstool (although, she may well be drinking) – but line dancing – who looks at Star as if she is the most selfish, ungrateful person in the world because she no longer wants to watch her mother’s kids for her. With this at home, it’s no wonder Star ends up in that van.
The movie is short on plot – but that hardly matters. The various kids in the van do become a sort of family to each other – and to Star – even though they never really open up to each other. They are all, likely, somewhat like Star- coming from broken, dysfunctional homes from around the country. They are selling these magazines not really to get ahead – they don’t make a lot of money, basically just enough to allow them to keep selling more magazines. The only one making any money is Krystal (a wonderful Riley Keough) – their boss, who rides around in a convertible instead of that van, and will do anything to motivate more sales – fear, intimidation – even some lame encouragement.
The emotional core of the movie is the connection between Star and Jake – one that perhaps she takes more seriously than he does, at least at first. These are the only two characters however, whoever do let their guard down with each other, and actually do talk about “the future” (their dreams are so small, it’s actually really sad, even as Star explains her with such hope). In their sex scenes together, Arnold zooms in close – filling the screen with Star’s face, perhaps only an eye – getting lost in that momentarily revelry and release. Star is, in some ways, a very smart young woman – in other ways, she is very naïve. She gets herself into a few situations over the course of the movie where you cannot help but hold your breath and hope the worst doesn’t happen – going off with a trio of middle aged “cowboys” in a convertible, jumping into the bed of a pickup truck with oil workers, going on a “date” with one of them later that night. Unlike many of the others in that van, she hasn’t become overly cynical yet – when she meets a family that undeniably reminds her of her own (but, perhaps even worse) – she gives up the pretense of a sales pitch, and instead buys them groceries. Like Katie Jarvis, who delivered a brilliant performance in Arnold’s Fish Tank back in 2009 (I really do want to see her in something else again, she was excellent in Fish Tank) – Arnold has found an actor with no previous experience, who is capable of holding the camera on her for almost the entire runtime of this film. She is an expressive actress, without overdoing it. She anchors the movie with her great work. Not to be outdone, LaBeouf is clearly doing the best work of his career as well – on one level, she is little else other than a huckster – a dirty, grimy, ponytailed version of a Glengarry Glen Ross character, instantly sizing up what people want him to say, and saying it. But there’s a little more to him than that – even if he doesn’t quite realize that. LaBeouf is very good here.
American Honey is a perfectly imperfect film. It’s the type of film that when you look back at it, you cannot help but be amazed that Arnold gets away with everything she does here – the number of sing-a-longs in the movie should be too many, including a climatic one to Lady Antebellem’s American Honey, which should be too on the nose. Yet remarkably, it does – the movie holds together – a grimy, dirty, road trip to the heart of America, which is both joyous and depressing. That’s not an easy thing to pull off – but Arnold does it here, reconfirming her status as one of the most interesting directors working today.