Film Review: American Honey

Director: Andrea Arnold

15 | 2h 43min | Drama | 14 October 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Director and writer Andrea Arnold returns with another social-realist flavoured study of outsiders from the low income brackets of the world, only this time the canvas she is working on is much, much wider, and she largely makes the most of it. With a story set on the highways and byways of the sun-baked South and Midwest of the United States, her new film American Honey is an alternately languid and perky road movie powered by a killer score, an eclectic supporting cast, and a standout turn in the lead role from newcomer Sasha Lane. The only niggles are that the plot feels a little too meandering at times, and at three hours long some might feel this new work is bordering on indulgence without any kind of blazing payoff to show for the time investment.

Still, Sasha Lane gives a lively, multilayered performance as struggling teen Star, possessed of a curious mix of poverty-induced street smarts counterbalanced by unworldliness due to her lack of opportunities. She can be defiant, but also maintains reserves of compassion, which ranges from tenderness towards her neglected siblings, to gingerly rescuing trapped flies from puddles. She’s keeping her head above water – just – despite the shitty suburban Oklahoma apartment she has to share with a sleazy, abusive stepfather and a mother more interested in getting drunk at the nearby line-dancing club while Star is left to look after her to younger half-siblings. Stuck in a tough life like this heading nowhere fast, it is no wonder then that when flashy, buff travelling salesman Jake pulls up in front of Star one morning, she accepts his offer to join his itinerant “magazine crew” in their van with attached U-haul trailer, and roll on to Kansas. The plan is to hawk as many subscriptions along the way under the guidance of the imperious, whiskey-slugging Crystal (Riley Keough); who is the real manager and money-handler (and possibly screwing Jake on the side).

Raw sexual chemistry erupts in the air between Star and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) the minute they lock eyes, she clearly being hit hard by his raffish good looks and charisma, not to mention the excitement of a new life that he offers. The two leads sell that aspect of their relationship with no problems, a long flirtation under the cover of Jake ‘training’ Star in the ways of magazine hustling soon blossoms into sweaty sex on numerous occasions, all out of Crystal’s view. LaBeouf at this point in his career is an acquired taste – part actor and part living art installation with a habit of earning himself unflattering headlines – but he can do swagger and explosive anger, which the role requires.

More interesting than Jake though are the group of dirt-poor teens and twentysomethings that he has gathered around him in the service of Crystal. Arnold assembles for us an intriguing cross-section of lower income bracket America, all cramped together in this van, with blunts, booze and music the essential travel ingredients. The kids are a diverse bunch: a mix of ethnicities, roughly balanced in terms of gender, several are gay, and many sport the easy familiarity kids have with drawing on different kinds of cultural references. Most are into hip-hop and rap and sport all the kinds of apparel around that. They are from all over the States, with the one connecting thread between them being that they are all outsiders, and have come from poverty. Arnold’s screenplay and direction, combined with the unforced performances, really mould this odd little caravan of misfits into a kind of odd but believable proto-family, where you sense real mutual support and security. Much of the time Arnold is content to let her camera run for extended sequences as this group bitch, cry, fight and laugh. This clan have established their own rituals and codes: blazing music and sing-alongs are de rigour for the long stretches between assignments, and low earners have to engage in low-level wrestling matches with other losers when the money counts are made. Nights are for bonfires, and passing around the weed and whiskey. There is a sense of this all being a celebration of the world’s left-behinds.

If this all sounds rather romantic, Arnold eventually disabuses us of the notion that this is a life that can be entirely carefree, let alone sustainable. Home for the group rarely gets better than various nondescript scuzzy hotels, or wherever Crystal decides to put them up, and they sleep three to a bed. Crystal herself seems to care little for any kind of professional training, and the entire magazine subscription operation seems sketchy from the start (Star’s first question about the job to Jake is one most viewers will be asking themselves, “who buys print magazines any more?”). What kinds of operation would just hire someone like Star off the street anyway? Sure, Star gets a contract, but she is told in no uncertain terms that a good percentage of her take will be kicked back to Crystal, who, seemingly out of jealousy of her connection with Jake, threatens more than once to boot the new girl out of the operation. Jake’s “power agent method” consists of elbowing his way into distinctly middle class properties and then guilting the people to sign up out of pity or just to get them to go away. There’s also money to be made pilfering from the homes of people who let them in to do their sales pitch. Needless to say, Jake’s hyper-aggressive nature and the fact he packs a Glock leads to some tense encounters. Maybe this shady, insecure line of work seen in the film is all meant as a commentary on the “gig economy” of today’s America, where full-time jobs and a set salary per month are becoming things of the past, as we all move towards becoming self-employed Uber drivers.

With a three hour run time and a lot of territory covered, American Honey does generate a tangible sense of mood and place, captured by Arnold’s camera in her preferred 4:3 aspect ratio. Long, languid shots of the sun-drenched landscapes are counterbalanced by many intimate sequences that keep us close to Star’s perspective. Particularly refreshing is how Arnold’s road map dodges the more obvious, picturesque “Americana” landscapes. Apart from Austin, most of the time we seem to be in the “in-between” spaces of the American south: from car parks where the gang can chill to the radio, to the vast oil plains where fire plumes carve through the dark. Thus, even when American Honey starts to drag a little, there is always something visually interesting going on. As music, alcohol and drugs mess with the gang’s equilibrium, the endless highway race past, and the sun blazes up above, the film at times generates a fable-like atmosphere, like this group of mismatched, parentless strays have just dropped off the earth. That tantalising woozy-ness and humid feel, combined with Lane’s strong performance, help keep American Honey flowing along. Fans of Van Sant and Malick will probably want a taste.

Film Review: American Honey
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