I thoroughly enjoyed this new film by Andrea Arnold, the writer-director of Fish Tank and Red Road. It’s the first picture the English filmmaker has made in America, and you could argue that she has reinvigorated both the American road movie and the coming-of-age story with this fresh, loose (and long) tale about a young woman who joins a group of wandering magazine sellers before travelling and partying with them across the Midwest. I have to be a little wary of saying this, given that I’m in my early 40s and I live in England, but compared to American Honey most other films about American teenagers and people in their early 20s that I’ve seen of late seem fairly inauthentic, and noticably behind the times. And although the marketimg bumf behind the movie should be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly when it boldly suggests that Arnold has made ‘a once-in-a-lifetime generational experience’, this does at least feel like it could be a landmark picture, certainly when compared to most – if not all – of the other films I’ve seen this year.
Arnold’s latest relies heavily on first-time actor Sasha Lane, who gives an excellent performance as Star, a teenager originally from Texas but now living in Oklahoma. When we first meet her she’s dumpster diving with her younger brother and sister in tow; it’s hard to deduce anything for certain about the rest of her life at home, but the house is messy and the implication is that Star is holding things together by cooking and looking after the two kids. We briefly see her being groped by an older man: is this her dad, stepdad, brother, uncle, mother’s current boyfriend or someone else entirely? Star’s mother, meanwhile, appears in a subsequent scene, line-dancing in a bar to Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, and she isn’t particularly impressed when her fun is disturbed. Just before this glimpse into family life, Star locks eyes with Shia LaBeouf’s Jake in a car park, and subsequently flirts with him as he dances with friends to Rihanna’s We Found Love in a K-Mart. He offers her a job selling magazines with his crew, promising Star the chance to see America, to earn up to $300 a day, and to have fun while doing so. Little wonder she says ‘yes’.
What follows is a tour of towns, cities and industrial areas that are seemingly in the middle of nowhere, during which the crew set out to sell magazine subscriptions to all sorts of people who never knew they wanted them, all the while staying in cheap motels and empty, derelict houses. Jake shows Star the tricks of the trade, using his charm on potential customers; he also steals from one unsuspecting woman and even pulls a gun on a group of three men (perhaps with good reason, sensing that some kind of danger may be fast approaching). Some days the crew travels to the next destination by bus, taking drugs, rapping, singing and joking to pass the time; some nights they party. Overseeing all of this is the intimidating, occasionally-wasted but entirely business-minded boss Crystal (Riley Keogh), who senses the mutual attraction developing between her own erstwhile lover Jake and Star, and repeatedly threatens the newcomer as a result, claiming that previous crew members have been dumped by the side of the road and left with no shoes and no money. Jake doesn’t interfere.
As the crew makes its way from one location to the next, Arnold uses repetition to induce a kind of hypnotic state in the viewer, while her screenplay subtly makes points about the socioeconomic divides in American society. We repeatedly see Star in the back of the minibus with the other crew members, catching up on sleep or staring out of the window as fields and strip malls pass by. On multiple occasions we see them pulling up to motels and/or leaving the next day, or several days later. There are plenty of sequences showing Star as she tries (struggles) to sell her magazine subscriptions, and these seem to potentially become more and more dangerous as the film progresses: not all the older men here have a predatory air about them, but plenty do, and seem ready to take advantage of Star if they are able to do so; however, one could just as easily argue that the character remains in control of each situation she finds herself in. Gradually, as the bus makes its way from one state to the next, we get to know some of the other crew members, some of whom talk freely about their backgrounds while others remain guarded: Pagan (Arielle Holmes), a Star Wars obsessive with possible mental health issues, stands out, as does QT (Veronica Ezell).
The director opts for the Academy ratio throughout, and her regular DP Robbie Ryan – whose work during the past ten years or so has been of a consistently high standard – often shoots close to the actors, getting right into the middle of them if there’s a group. Their faces regularly fill the frame, though American Honey only ever feels truly claustrophobic when the crew is packed into the minibus. (At one point a knowing Star gazes sympathetically at a trailer that’s packed full of cattle on the way to an abbatoir.) The occasional beautiful shot of one of America’s wide, open spaces doesn’t feel hindered by the traditional, non-widescreen format, while there are golden hour sunsets and a number of scenes with lens flare, which is kind of what you’d expect. Some of Ryan’s best shots are of the insects and the animals that Star sees on the road; the creatures seem to increase in size gradually, though the very last one that appears right at the end of the film is much smaller, offering a rather optimistic note because it symbolises long life and good health. The animals are often cared for by Star, whose kindness and benevolence arguably leads to a few karmic dollars in the bank.
There’s much to recommend the film, not least the two impressive central performances by Lane and LaBeouf, who overacts on a couple of occasions but ultimately turns in his best work since 2006’s A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (though I was also impressed by him in David Ayer’s Fury and Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac). I’m eager to see Lane again, and will watch out for her during the next year or two; this is a performance of great strength, from an actor exhibiting the kind of judgment you wouldn’t usually expect from a debutant. Yet it’s the work overall that is most worth celebrating: American Honey has a strong, well-realised mood and tone, and as a character study it feels thorough, and genuine. As road movies go it’s modern, and romantic, without being overly-romantic. As a love story it’s intriguing enough. It’s also a visually and sonically stimulating throughout. Arnold has even managed to surpass her earlier work with this one.
Directed by: Andrea Arnold.
Written by: Andrea Arnold.
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keogh, Arielle Holmes, McCaul Lombardi, Crystal B. Ice, Chad McKenzie Cox, Garry Howell, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Raymond Coalson, Dakota Powers, Verronikah Ezell.
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan.
Editing: Joe Bini.
Running Time: 164 minutes.