On paper, a three-hour movie starring Shia LaBeouf with a score of almost exclusively trap music sounds terrible. However, under the guidance of the supremely talented British writer-director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights), American Honey shines as both a character study and an exploration of modern America. Newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star, a teen who escapes her troubled home life by joining a crew of similarly disillusioned young people selling magazine subscriptions door to door across the U.S. While on the road, she becomes romantically involved with Jake (LaBeouf), a smooth talking salesman who believes he is a lot cooler than he is, and butts heads with Krystal (Riley Keough, The Girlfriend Experience), her materialistic and hard-edged yet mysterious boss.
Arnold captures the feeling of being young and independent with friends, and depicts that illicit thrill that derives in making one’s own decisions and not having to follow orders from anybody. What is truly amazing though is that she does this without dialogue. Instead, the director relies upon visuals to capture the exhilaration and energy that can come from sharing a bottle of vodka between ten, who are all cramped in a small van journeying to their next adventure. Arnold’s long-time cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses his hand-held camera to consistently bob and weave between characters and interactions, mimicking a jitter of nervous excitement. He also amazingly and inexplicably makes Star and her peers’ confined caravan setting feel vaster and more expansive than the family home we found our protagonist at the beginning of the drama.
The film is not narratively driven. In fact, upon first viewing there is no real message that runs consistently throughout. Instead, American Honey feels episodic in the sense that each time, Star and company journey to a new place, it feels like its addressing a new issue. At one point in the drama, Arnold appears to be analysing human being’s inherent need to follow rules. Away from their parents or guardians, the young adults begin making up rules for themselves such as every time they hear Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ they have to break into dance. Then at other parts it feels as if Arnold laments the fact that a sub-section of America’s underprivileged see generic rap as a form of inspiration, adapting lyrics like “I like to make money, get turnt” into a type of credo.
Like a lot of Arnold’s work, nothing is ever completely explicit. Certain scenes can be interpreted a number of different ways. A long sequence sees Star, following a fight with Jake, get picked up by three older men dressed as cowboys (one played by great character actor Will Patton). There is an intentional leery vibe as they begin to pay her to perform degrading tasks like eating a worm from the end of a Tequila bottle. It never turns sexual as the trio are interrupted by an event (which is annoyingly spoiled in the trailer) and by the end, one is left chewing on what exactly the scene was meant to symbolise. It could represent the dangers women face every-day, the stupid things – like hitchhiking from strangers – young people do, the dark underbelly of Americana or all three combined. This lack of clarity that continues throughout, even in its ending, could be frustrating in a lesser movie. However, Arnold is so good at building tension that the viewer is, for the most part, immersed in the moment with Star. Also, there are often so many possible interpretations that it’s probable a number of viewers could watch the film and each would leave with a different understanding of what they saw.
The performances at its centre are pitch-perfect. LaBeouf is an ingeniously cast as Jake. He is someone who thinks he is deep and troubled – he at one point rides off angrily into the night on a motorcycle like a James Dean wannabe – something I could imagine the actor playing him doing. Yet, despite the character’s purposely annoying nature, one completely understands why Star is drawn to him. Jake is charismatic and unlike anyone she has ever seen before in her impoverished home town, a place where she literally scavenges in bins for food. Meanwhile, between this and The Girlfriend Experience, Riley Keough is becoming the go-to actress for icy and complex characters, turning her Krystal (who must be in her mid-twenties) into a realistically world weary villain.
However, arguably the real gem performance wise is Sasha Lane. Arnold, who is renowned for casting unprofessional performers in lead roles e.g. Fish Tank, found the actress on a beach during Spring Break. Casting an unknown works to the movie’s benefit because someone famous would bring to much pre-conceived baggage to be believable (a similar strategy to Ken Loach’s realist films). Lane, like her character’s namesake, is radiant, managing to elicit a charisma while also feeling utterly real and authentic.
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Generally, American Honey feels like it earns its 163-minute running time. Although there are a few moments where the episodic structure of the film (new destination, exploration of area, conflict, resolution, repeat) becomes repetitive, there is always something interesting happening. For Arnold’s first movie in America, she deftly captures the mood and tone of both the locals and the surroundings, something which other great writer-directors like Paolo Sorrentino (This Must Be the Place) have struggled with in the move to the U.S.
American Honey is one of those unique types of films which leave a viewer slightly perplexed upon leaving the cinema. However, for days after it lingers in the mind, demanding to be deciphered in a number of different ways. For that, it should be applauded.
American Honey is in cinemas tomorrow, Friday 14th October