Synopsis: A teenage girl with nothing to lose joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits. (Source)
American Honey is a behemoth of a film, an epic road trip that takes us straight into the hopes, aspirations and frailties of an unforeseen America. Tackling the midwest with sobering ferocity, director Andrea Arnold takes a long, hard look at the ideas and marginalized lifestyles which comprise most of the country, yet are rarely represented or talked about in ways that are meaningful. What she finds, is a natural grace, telling a story about finding ourselves in the midst of an ever-shifting world. Though the film is a much-needed indictment of the American Dream, it’s also a celebration of the innocence and purity found through her characters’ search for connection, yielding impeccable performances from her cast (lead by a raw, uninhibited Sasha Lane) and a free-wheeling sense of hypnotic chaos. Arnold’s latest is a perfect snapshot of millennial yearning, one that stings with truth and brings with it a hope for what comes next.
The story hinges around 18-year old Star (Sasha Lane). When we first meet her, she’s dumpster diving with two young children in her care, struggling to make ends meet as she wrestles with an undefined, but clearly tumultuous home life. A chance encounter at Walmart leads Star to meet a boy named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), himself a rat-tailed, charismatic free spirit with an offer she can’t refuse. Jake and a small group of runaways are traveling the country selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions, and he wants Star to join up. There’s a primal attraction between the two that is palpable, but a lot of variables at play. Thinking it over, Star drops everything to join Jake and his ragtag mag crew, but finds friction with their leader, Krystal (Riley Keough), a domineering entrepreneur who’s cutthroat ambition pushes the kids to their limits. As Star struggles to find her place within the group, she discovers who she really is amidst the vast highways which separate and connect our country.
Arnold’s portrait of America is both an overwhelming sensory experience and a reminder of how vast and diverse the world can be. Through it, we get a glimpse at young survivors who are doing anything they can just to survive from day to day. There’s an overarching plot, but the film plays out like an off-the-cuff, hang-out film, with Arnold’s voyeuristic approach giving off a doc-style realism contrasted by vibrant cinematography. Needless to say, things move with a restless pace, just like its characters, who rarely stop to catch their breath. There’s also a poignancy to it all, with Arnold ultimately capturing the transience of youth and impermanence of the people, places and things that shape who we are but don’t stick around. Stitching it all together is an eclectic soundtrack of trap music and pop hits (which capture the bravado and playfulness of her characters), with Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” acting as a defacto theme song for her lovelorn outsiders. It all amounts to a perfect mix of hyperreality and raw, genuine emotion, giving us not just a coming-of-age story, but an introspective look at how hope that lies just beneath the surface of each seemingly dire situation.
Using a mixed cast of non actors and seasoned vets, Arnold’s ensemble is another way the film finds truth through fiction. Anchoring the entire thing, Sasha Lane’s as Star, delivers a powerhouse performance that is fierce, yet unguarded. There’s a earnest vulnerability to her that gives the film its truth, and it’s her spunk that acts as the backbone. Shia LaBeouf’s Jake is great too, turning what could’ve been a generic, douchy bro-dude into an endearing misfit just looking for a way to stay afloat. It’s the chemistry between Lane and LaBeouf that Arnold focuses on, and whether they’re together or apart, most of the film benefits from how they directly or indirectly impact each other on a myriad of levels. As the intimidating Krystal, Riley Keough is thematically a polar opposite to Lane, but with similarities which hide beneath the surface. Strong-willed but self-assured, and not afraid to impose her authority on the group, her character is brimming with nuance and a pain that sharply contrasts with her outward influence and strength. Arielle Holmes, McCaul Lombardi lead up the rest of the rag-tag crew, who each bring something unique to the film’s electric energy.
If there’s a single takeaway within American Honey, one that sticks throughout it’s abundance of ideas and feelings, it’s that hope is blind. It pierces beyond the veil of hardship and serves as a guiding light throughout the toughest of times. Though Arnold is keen towards the film’s darker elements, with poverty and class dissection constantly at the fore, there’s a romanticism for her characters’ ability to see through their hardships that is intoxicating. Arnold’s latest is a film that takes America as it is – a broken, tattered collection of failed dreams but also, undeniably, a home that we can’t and never want to leave.