Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” takes viewers on a remarkable odyssey of youth and Americana. It’s alternatively visionary, beautiful, ugly, celebratory and harrowing in its tour across country with a group of teenagers. Arnold (“Fish Tank“) sees them as strays looking for a home and finding it wherever they are, and watching their journey in this nearly three hour epic is absolutely rapturous.
Arnold’s Queen of Middle America is Star (the wonderful newcomer Sasha Lane), who opens the film fishing a discarded and rotting chicken out of a dumpster for a pair of kids’ dinner. Yum. “Are we invisible,” she screams at passing drivers refusing to accept them as hitchhikers. She’s not wrong, and it’s truly revelatory to see that there are kids who live and survive like this, operating in a whole other world apart from, not just people who live on the coasts and in big cities, but those who live within these small communities and see gems like Star as outcasts.
In the Target across from where Star tries to hitchhike, she spots a van blaring rap music and a teen mooning his ass out the window. Inside is Jake (Shia LaBeouf); they recognize each other, but it’s never explained from where. Jake has a rat tail braid down to his shoulders and wears suspenders and a dress shirt like an old-school mobster. He leaps onto a counter as a Rihanna song starts playing over the intercom. “We found love in a hopeless place,” a familiar anthem, but truly fitting here.
Star, a mixed-race girl with tattoos, a ratty tank top and dirty, unkempt dreadlocks, cares for two kids, but they’re not her own. With an invite from Jake and a job offer, she runs away from her responsibilities to join a traveling operation of selling magazines door to door. Her boss Krystal (Riley Keough) has little patience for anyone just looking for a joy ride. Star and about 10 other teens ride around in a cramped van, staying at motels along the road and selling magazines in a new town each week. They party hard, but they make their money, and if Star can’t keep up, she’ll be booted from the group. In one scene Krystal answers her motel door naked with an open man’s dress shirt, sizing up the newcomer with a DGAF look that shows she’s boss. Meanwhile the formerly fun loving and rowdy Jake has been reduced to Krystal’s pet, slathering moisturizer on her legs like a slave.
“American Honey” doesn’t have a strong trajectory in terms of a story, but it matches the tone of this parade of drifters. They move from place to place, and along the way they express themselves and grow. They all have their own backgrounds and personalities, like the one who thinks Darth Vader is the epitome of death while another cares for a pet squirrel. They’re all volatile kids, with some whipping their dicks out and falling over one another as they chant their company’s mottos during morning meetings. For every song that comes on, everyone knows all the words, and in the van’s tight confines they form a commune.
Arnold shoots in a cozy Academy aspect ratio and finds the camera to be wonderfully limber inside and all over the van, even riding on the back of the roof for one gorgeous night time shot. And in getting intimate with everyone over such a sprawling film, the sensation is spiritual. You truly begin to bond with these people who you would’ve written off as trashy punks upon first glance.
Of course “American Honey” thinks deeply about perception, stereotypes and identity as it relates to Americans. In one scene Jake takes Star under his wing to teach her the ropes of salesmanship. He explains that it doesn’t matter what story he tells, so long as it’s the one the customer wants to hear. Be the person they want you to be as soon as they lay eyes on you. At one house they’re greeted by a pre-teen girl instantly smitten and flirting with Jake. Her Christian mother invites them into their massive home, and as the sales pitch grows increasingly awkward, with the daughter dancing in the backyard with her friends to impress Jake, Arnold’s portrait and perception of Middle America goes two ways.
The emotions of the movie are equally torn. Star has a fearless attitude and makes fast friends with some wealthy cowboys egging her on to drink. It’s fun, invigorating and exciting, but later that free spiritedness gives way to a dark side as she sells her body in exchange for sales receipts. “American Honey” blends the seedy and the serene, the scary and the spiritual.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Star is the only person of color amid their travelling crew. She stands apart from the rest and has a special glow around her, or at least Arnold shoots Lane with something of an aura, that we’re seeing the world through her eyes and feel distinctly in touch with it. Lane in particular gives a breakout performance, showing conviction and a trusting quality to dive into any situation, however thorny and strange. She furrows her brow as though she’s likewise sizing up everyone around her, but she has the freedom in her movements and actions to survive and embrace the world.
LaBeouf too, between this performance and his work in Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” has shown he’s an actor willing to take chances. He wears his rat tail confidently, and he’s a slick bullshitter as a salesman, disarming-cute one moment and unhinged the next. He puts up a mystique that makes his character difficult to assign a label, and that keeps the romance and drama between Jake and Star strong.
The initial trailers for “American Honey” made it look like another version of “Spring Breakers,” a movie that explored the wild, often monstrous underbelly of youth culture. Arnold’s film feels far more observant and warm, but it takes you to as many depths as it does heights. It’s a roller coaster ride in little more than a van on open highway. It finds a lot to love in this hopeless place.