Film Review: American HoneyA freewheeling, immersive slice of Americana that introduces Sasha Lane in a star-making performance in the role of a teenager with big dreams. 'American Honey' finds poetry in loosely joined moments and earns its sumptuous running time.
“We don’t only sell magazines. We also explore America,” says Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in his eager pitch to recruit Star (Sasha Lane, in a glorious debut) as a cross-country door-to-door magazine salesperson in British writer-director Andrea Arnold’s lush, freewheeling American Honey. It’s perhaps too on the nose a statement delivered by the story’s mouthpiece—that much you can gather from the film’s on-paper premise—but one that impenitently pulls you in, makes you stretch your visceral muscles and embark on their journey too. With her first stateside feature (and fourth overall), Arnold announces early on that she’s come to look for America in an expansive voyage (the film runs a whopping and well-earned 163 minutes) across the Midwest and beyond. And she wishes to whisk you away alongside a band of misfits (and a number of enthusiastic, majestic dogs, many of them decisively American Pit Bull Terriers) whose hopes gleefully but heartbreakingly surpass their realistic prospects in size and magnitude.
As she did in the attentively gloomy Fish Tank, her Essex-set 2009 film about an underprivileged, abused teen with big, unspoiled dreams, Arnold once again follows a young woman whose ambitions—albeit modest, like owning a trailer to call her own one day—are not obstructed by the limited choices of the life she’s been born into. The young woman in question is the aforementioned Star (Arnold’s camera unreservedly loves and reveres Sasha Lane), a resourceful teen who scavenges supermarkets’ trash for salvageable food, looks after her half-siblings and takes care of her shoddy family members. Arnold doesn’t entirely spell out the familial situation Star is stuck in, but we are given enough of a setup to be horrified by the routine sexual abuse she endures in the hands of her father (or mother’s boyfriend) and to know she’s continually pushed to the sidelines.
The film doesn’t dwell on this backstory too much, however, and cuts to the chase swiftly with the introduction of Jake (Shia LaBeouf, once again proving he’s a fine actor with a range and not just an eccentric pop-culture figure) through an across-the-aisle flirtation at a supermarket, aptly scored to Rihanna’s upbeat “We Found Love.” It’s a disarmingly joyous scene that helps one to find optimism in the cold aisles of Wal-Mart. And like the rest of the film, it daintily walks on emotional thin ice, too: One wrong move, and the ice could shatter to plunge its characters into freezing, hostile waters. Cracks do happen along the way, but not until we get enough time with this crew that resembles something between a dysfunctional family and a touring band with internal battles. To that end, the scene in which the hobo clan collectively sings Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey” gives sentimental vibes of the “Tiny Dancer” sing-along in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous.
Once Star joins their traveling company, led by the self-defined American honey Krystal (Riley Keough), she pairs up with Jake, who trains her in the craft of salesmanship. Each of their encounters plays like a short film or an episodic story in itself. During their first joint attempt to sign a wealthy mother up for a number of subscriptions (through a sham story of working towards college), Star’s impatience and ethical purity present an immediate clash with their moneymaking mission. In later encounters, she simultaneously imposes those traits onto her actions, while also making a number of dubious and potentially dangerous decisions in direct conflict with her stance, partly to get a rise out of the hotheaded Jake (whom she lustfully courts) and partly to rebel against an increasingly demanding Krystal. Arnold’s treatment of Star’s uncooked values is simply fascinating stuff. She allows her to be a directionless teenager eager to declare her own freedom, while also having her fall, bruise and even hit rock bottom through a sexual affair she halfheartedly signs onto.
The film’s most memorable (and impeccably directed) sequence arrives midway through, when Star hops in the fancy car driven by three wealthy cowboys and follows them to their exquisite estate to rake in some quick cash. The way we fear for Star in this scene resembles the way we are afraid for Cheryl Strayed in Jean-Marc Valleé’s Wild. These men can be predators just as much as they can be harmless figures looking for some benign excitement. Through this chapter, Arnold expertly plays with our inner dread and teases our anticipation ruthlessly. She also empowers Star to stand tall against a bunch of seemingly intimidating men whom she treats like a group of schoolyard kids.
Also noteworthy is the sense of claustrophobia Arnold captures along with her cinematographer Robbie Ryan. For a movie mostly set outdoors and on the road, American Honey contains quite a number of suffocating shots that stay too close to and confine its characters in the van and in their physical space. This style (possibly partly mandated by having to maneuver in a moving, overcrowded vehicle) perfectly complements Star’s apparent place in life: out to find her freedom, but still held back by the chains of her social and economic status.
If there is anything American Honey is guilty of, it is its desire to trumpet certain motivations out loud that should better be left unspoken. This tendency becomes most apparent with certain musical track choices, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream.” It’s a song that fits the scene it accompanies like a glove, which is jarring in a film that mostly operates on a plateau of randomness. But such occasional frustrations don’t impede the overall package. American Honey is unapologetically sprawling, a buoyant, relaxed collection of loosely linked moments and a generously elongated tale about off-the-grid lives.
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