Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Distributed by: A24
Written by Jeff Sparks
Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, and Riley Keough, “American Honey” is what I believe to be the magnum opus of distinguished British filmmaker Andrea Arnold and the second masterpiece of her career which comes six years after her sensational drama “Fish Tank”. In “American Honey” Lane takes the lead as Star, a young woman who escapes her dead-end life by running away with a band of misfits and outcasts who work as door to door salesmen by selling magazines as they travel in a van across the United States. Arnold uses this story of free-living, hard-partying, and young love to portray the desperation of impoverished youth and the lack of opportunities for young people with limited backgrounds as they struggle to find their way in the world while they chase the illusion of the American dream.
Without any credits to start with, the film immediately immerses you into the life of Star by opening with a scene of her teaching two children how to dumpster dive in an alleyway across the street from a store before attempting to hitchhike. Across the street, she notices a group of young misfits led by Labeouf who plays Jake, the business manager for this magazine salesman crew. Following them into a store she is immediately in awe of their spirit as Jake jumps on a checkout table while dancing along to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” that is playing on the store’s radio. After getting kicked out by security Star follows him outside where he invites her to join the crew, she shows interest in the energetic crew but heads home where it is implied she is abused by a man who may either be her father or her boyfriend. Arnold leaves it unclear intentionally because the specifics of the situation are not contextual. The only thing that matters is she does not want to be here due to not only the way she is treated but also that this is not a life she has envisioned for herself.
Star sneaks out of the house with only a bag of clothes and finds the mag crew at a seedy hotel where she meets the boss of the outfit, Krystal, who is played by the consistently great Riley Keough in a convincing performance of a heartless and independent businesswoman. Krystal gives Star a roadside job interview before the rest of her squad arrives ready to go. Wearing tank tops, yoga pants, skate shorts, piercings, and tattoos, Star feels more in place here than she ever did back home. As she meets the other members she asks if anyone buys the magazines they are selling. “Fuck no” one of the girls tells her. The mag crew resumes their journey, sleeping three to a bed while they travel, seeing many different states including Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Throughout their travels that make up the film, we are mainly treated to their daily activities that consist of listening to music, smoking, drinking, and struggling to make sales before moving on to the next state.
One of Arnold’s most prominent themes in all her films is showing the different perspectives of people from all walks of life. The concept of this film is perfect for her in the sense that as Star travels across the country she meets people along the way that all give her a different experience. A truck driver she meets reminds Star of the importance of chasing your dreams as he talks to the young woman about her aspirations while Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” plays in the background. This encounter later prompts Star to sell sex to another stranger she meets in an attempt to raise money to help Jake chase his dreams of running away with her. This backfires on her, causing him to resent her which is much like the entirety of the American dream that this group is chasing. With them being the misfits and troublemakers from poor towns that they are, chasing their dreams often goes nowhere, giving off a sense of hopelessness that causes them to only be concerned with living freely and in the moment in the way that they do.
This theme of hopelessness and confusion for these characters is further examined when Star wanders into a house in a rundown neighborhood. Inside she finds a mess of a home with the two young children essentially running the household while their guardian is consumed with her drug addiction. Seeing they have little food supplies, Star leaves and returns to the children with bags full of groceries. In this scene, the children represent the impoverished youth that is where the mag crew comes from, and Star represents her wish that if someone could have helped her or the other mag crew members, then maybe they could be wherever they want to be in life, instead of living a lost and confused existence in an unfair world as they travel in a cramped van, scraping by.
To further add to these themes in a scene where a bear wanders up to Star and growls in her face, Star remains calm and stares it down. The bear acts as a dangerous allegory of her uncertain future that is coming toward her like a freight train. Her current life is unsustainable and will have to end at some point. Over the course of the trip, she has seen all walks of life. Big cities, countrysides, ghettos, mansions, and whatever else you can think of. For a girl who currently only has the money in her pocket and the clothes on her back, she has no clue where she may end up twenty years from now or even twenty days. The reason she doesn’t scream in fright of the bear is that this is not the only time her future is uncertain. Her whole life has been a question mark, hence why she dropped everything and ran away with a group of strangers.
All the actors are so dedicated in this project, especially the big three. Labeouf and Arnold even went as far as to live on the road with real mag crews before the shoot to get the real experience. The commitment shows on screen, especially from Labeouf who goes all out in his performance which is one of the best of his career. Arnold discovered lead actress Sasha Lane while she was on Spring break on the beach. Lane, who was not an actress, put her trust in Arnold and the result of it is a great first-time film performance similar to what Arnold had done before with actors like Katie Jarvis and the great Kate Dickie. Many of the other cast members were also not actors that Arnold discovered in places like bars, state fairs, parking lots, or even the side of the road. By feeding them the script day by day while they shot and filming in chronological order similar to “Fish Tank”, Arnold directs them all marvelously and makes it work, giving off an authentic and raw feeling to the characters and their representation of where they come from in society. Many viewers have criticized the characters of the film as unlikeable. You don’t have to like the characters, you just have to understand they are the way that they are for a reason.
Another complaint from viewers is the nearly three-hour runtime that some say is too long. On the contrary, I would say that the runtime is barely just long enough due to the point of the many filmmaking techniques being utilized to make you feel immersed in this journey with Star. If the film was short, this simply wouldn’t work and the rest of the film would fall apart and come off as a sub-par attempt. Continuing her trend from “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights”, Arnold has her signature 4:3 aspect ratio and relies on the camera work of Robbie Ryan which is some of the most immersive I’ve ever seen throughout the entirety of a film and rivals the likes of “Climax.” Capturing even more of the environment than in her other films, the camera works as an all-seeing eye, capturing so much of society and nature that is seen throughout, adding to the atmospheric tone of the film. With a loose editing style, the visuals of the surroundings are not only captured but also the noises around them. Nearby animals, cars flying by, music being played, and other ambient noises are all captured by the sound design that adds to the immersion and atmosphere of the film.
The final important component of “American Honey” is the usage of music, which is a staple for Arnold at this point. Like in “Fish Tank”, the songs are crucial to not only the scenes but also the themes of the film. With a wide song variety Arnold used songs that she had personal connections with in addition to them being truthful to the backdrop of the scenes they are in, such as the titular track “American Honey” with lyrics like “She grew up on the side of the road” or “Free as a weed, couldn’t wait to get going but wasn’t ready to leave.” These lines all fit Stars situation. Other songs work very well with the energy of the film such as when “We Found Love” plays during Star and Jake’s first meeting and later when “Fade Into You” plays when they make love for the first time. With a rare perfect score from me, Andrea Arnold may have more to show but for now, the masterclass in immersion that is “American Honey” is the high point of her illustrious career.
“American Honey” Trailer