There comes a time in every person’s life where they fracture from the life they once knew. For many people, that demarcation arrives in the form of college but for Star (Sasha Lane) such privileges are but a pipe dream, never once considered. Rather, her life veers from its turbulent tracks with the arrival of Jake (Shia LaBeouf) a charismatic snake oil salesman-type traveling with a band of misfit teens, drinking, smoking and jamming out to Ciara, Mazzy Star and Madeintyo their way across the poverty belt of the U.S.A.
In the past, director Andreas Arnold has had a particular fascination with the subject of poverty, exploring it through a humanist lens. She broaches her subjects with little to no judgment and tells stories based on human experience, no matter how alien it may seem. Arndold did so to great effect in 2009 with Fish Tank, juxtaposing a dubious sexual encounter between an older man and his girlfriend’s 15-year old daughter with the emotional wreckage wrought of extreme poverty and “not knowing better”. Through Star, we are privy to equally humiliating, disgusting encounters – her father not so subtly treats her like a rubbing post anytime he’s a few beers deep – but there’s flashes of hope and light peppered through American Honey that keeps it from feeling like a big pity party.
Weighing in at hefty 2 hours 43 minutes, American Honey fashions itself an Americana epic. An odyssey of self-discovery, Arnold’s film thrives on small moments. Gone are the flashy pivot points, replaced by sullen moments. A character usually learns something about themselves by figuring out what they don’t want to be rather than the opposite and that turning of the norm makes for some discomforting, if involving, cinema.
In the strange specificity of teenagers hanging out, Arnold’s ability to interpret and represent the idiosyncrasies of these disenfranchised millennial is absolute. Her strengths lay not in the sweeping plot points that get characters from point A to point B but in establishing mood, of sketching an often frightfully real portrait of youth in revolt. Consequently, American Honey is a new kind of coming of age movie; a melancholic tone poem that doesn’t purport to be able anything in particular but still feels rich and timely and important. It’s almost Seinfeldian in that way. Sure, it’s about nothing. But it’s also about everything.
Assigning value and worth to specific scenes can be difficult as the script, also penned by Arnold, charters an admittedly lackadaisical journey. The scenery is an interchangeable slaw of middle American nowheres but each place serves its purpose, veiled as it may be. There’s probably a good twenty minutes of the film spent in a big ass van, cruising through flatlands, bumping tunes and singing along as if possessed. This idea is perpetuated often; possession. Praying at the alter of bastardized capitalism, these kids dance around fires after a day of sales, crazed as Maurice Sendak‘s wild things.
Throughout, characters rarely make big leaps forward. They are who they are. They have their shtick. Their gambit. Their angle. As a newcomer, even Star can’t seem to twist who she is into who she needs to be in order to find success. Instead, we witness small inklings of understanding come to bear; minuscule moments – of doubt, fear, strength, rage – internalized and physically manifested. The way a characters belts or mumbles a song tells us all we need to know about their emotional state. When they go beyond the realm of song, dance and sex, things get ugly.
The core of American Honey is the budding romantic pairing of Star and Jake, a mismatched crushing who adopt a Romeo/Juliet status when the ringleader of this traveling band of magazine salespeople, Krystal (Riley Keough) forbids their romance. She of course does so for grossly inappropriate reasons but despite her scummy intentions, Krystal feels as organic as the food this trope will likely never taste. This is an Andreas Arnold movie after all, what would it be without an adult prying sexual advantage over youth?
Although not truly a couple you’re meant to root for, there is truth to the pairing of Jake and Honey. Jake is a maestro of the sob story, weaving tales of his impoverished path and trying to earn his way to college to gyp the unsuspecting housewife out of a few Jacksons. But he’s also fearlessly himself. A rat-tail sporting conniver, unafraid to escalate and frightfully driven. As Star comes to understand her role as a salesperson, she rebels against the idea of evoking pity to bamboozle would-be customers. Her methods prove none too superior. When a brandished gun is brought into play, we tremble at the possibility. That it is shucked off and forgotten about soon after proves the ethical loosey-goosey nature of Arnold’s vision.
A few shocking moments cast doubt unto what lengths they are willing to go – are we witness to a budding Bonnie and Clyde situation? – but are smartly abandoned. In other films, that might seem jolting and out of place. Here, these sequences contributes to the moral confusion rife in these youth’s lives. They experiment with the dirty side of morality but always seem to circle back to just trying to do what they can with what they have. And sometimes that means hanging out with a field with a bear.
Though some of the scenes stretch on, leaving American Honey to feel the burden of being nearly three hours, Arnold’s film spellbinds more than not. A hypnotic soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography from Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, Slow West) and standout performances from Sasha Lane and LaBeouf, both of whom absolutely shine, help to keep it chipping along. That it dares to withdraw into introspection and ponderousness when asked to make big decisions helps make it an experience worthy of considering and remembering. As Arnold weaves a delicate and meaningful portrait of Trump-era America with all its nasty underbelly and gaping chinks in the armor, we’re left with something that is both flawed and unusually arresting; a uniquely American experience that occasionally works to awesome effect.
CONCLUSION: Admirably unfocused and nearly three hours long, ‘American Honey’ is a behemoth of modern American cinema that dares to tell a coming-of-age drama in untraditional fashion. That it feels cut from the same cloth as the works of Mark Twain or Jack Kerouac speaks to the timeless cultural universality Andrea Arnold almost effortlessly is able to tap into as Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf sparkle just as much as her infectious soundtrack.