Andrea Arnold’s first US-set movie American Honey is a resonant, freewheeling epic, where youthful abandon triumphs over economic and social adversity.
For better or for worse, you will truly feel like you’ve been on a journey with these kids. I genuinely felt like I had been scooped up by Shia Labeouf’s cocky, rat-tailed Jake and Riley Keough’s intense entrepreneur Krystal from an Oklahoma car park. And then made to spend a significant portion of my life trying to sell magazines door-to-door with a rag-tag band of drunk and stoned teenagers.
I am not complaining, despite some ups, downs and Shia Labeouf’s rat-tail, I had a blast. It’s just that at nearly 3 hours long and with a… how shall we put this politely… loose narrative, American Honey may not be for everyone. But it’s definitely a journey worth taking.
Our constant companion during our road-trip across the Midwest is Star, a teenage girl who we’re first introduced to while dumpster-diving for food with her significantly younger siblings. Despite some later, potentially more violent situations, the early scenes of American Honey feature Star’s lowest moments, particularly her molestation at the hands of her father while Star’s younger brother repeatedly stabs an uncooked chicken on the kitchen floor. When Star eventually abandons her siblings with their mother (who clearly doesn’t want the responsibility) it’s an act of defiance and self-protection rather than recklessness.
Star is played by newcomer Sasha Lane, and American Honey owes a great deal of its success to her performance. She’s all zero-fucks given when she needs to be, but you can see her vulnerability through the snarls and moments of terrifying irresponsibility. Star will often hop in the open-topped car or flat-bed truck of some random stranger and your heart will go into your mouth as you assume the worse. But Star is always in control – or at least gives the illusion of being in control – and it’s this fine line that Sasha Lane walks with preternatural assuredness.
There’s a love story in American Honey of-sorts. Shia Labeouf’s frenetically energised Jake dances around Star, and their attraction is palpable and complicated. But American Honey is far more about how Star finds herself, and how she may or may not define her own character as she figures out how to interact with her fellow street-team members. There’s little in the way of definable narrative, but there is an arc for Star and by the end you understand her nuances and contradictions far better than you may understand your own. It’s the journey of Star’s compassion that will be charted here, more than anything else.
Drama unfolds in cycles, it has to, American Honey is nearly three hours long. There are many languid moments where we’re merely sat on the back of the bus taking in the sights of the recession ravaged Midwest and the smells of a homemade bong. This is all captured beautifully by Andrea Arnold’s camera. The director of Fish Tank and Red Road balances an almost documentarian aesthetic (in part thanks to its 4:3 framing) with some breathtaking cinematography, but all the while you feel utterly immersed in the moment.
But for every moment of tranquility, there are bursts of hyperactive drama. The best of which occur while Jake is trying to teach Star the tricks of the trade. Jake’s charming sales patter to a very conservative Christian lady, while her young daughter performs an uncomfortably sexualised dance routine in the background, is one of American Honey’s stand-out scenes.
Jake, Star and the rest of the gang are selling something utterly redundant. But they’re not really selling magazines, they’re selling themselves, or at least their potential selves. And it’s the people who ‘buy’ who are the ones who haven’t given up on the youth of America and their own country’s future prosperity.
Those who refuse are the people who tend to be richest and the most god-fearing. “It’s clear you are in the grip of the devil and I therefore won’t be buying your magazines” (I’m glibly paraphrasing a line here) – and sadly it’s the solipsistic conservative Christians who are in control, and have ground these kids into the dirt before they’ve even had a chance.
Star’s journey takes her from an impoverished Oklahoma town, through the affluent neighbourhoods of Kansas City to the oil fields of North Dakota. And the commentary on the social and economic unbalance from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and state to state is clear – as are the crippling affects of unbridled capitalism.
The busload of magazine-selling kids are the product of this. Their number one priority, as dictated to them by Krystal, is make money. The two sellers who make the least, are forced to physically fight in a tribalistic ritual known as ‘loser’s night’. If they don’t make anything over a longer period of time, they are left on the side of the road. This is business in it’s purest, animalistic form. The kids can do whatever they want in the meantime, and because they’re kids this means getting high, getting stoned and jumping over fires — but they know that if they don’t make that money, they’re as good as dead.
American Honey is also one of the few films that successfully portrays the true power and joy of music – particularly for those who can’t (or haven’t yet learnt) to articulate their emotions. Many of American Honey’s more stirring moments occur when the teens gather together to sing the shit of their favourite tune. Even if the music isn’t to your taste (there’s a lot of trap and a lot country, which is a difficult mixture even for the most worldly muso), you can easily recognise the feelings going unsaid and the bonds being formed.
If you need a comparative film, you could say that American Honey is an ancestor of Easy Rider. As Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda rode across the Southwest and explored the death of the hippie movement and critiqued the changing political landscape of 1960’s America while celebrating the individualism of youth, American Honey does the same. Although despite its own evidence to the contrary, Andrea Arnold’s film has a more optimistic outlook. By the end of American Honey, Star is heading towards a more altruistic, compassionate identity, one that her country is desperately in need of. Also instead of ‘Born to be Wild’ we get Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love in Hopeless Place’, which I feel is a more than fair trade. 4/5