Following in the tradition of ambitious “American ________” titled films (i.e. Psycho, Graffiti, Beauty, Sniper, Hustle), American Honey seeks to encapsulate its moment in history. Thankfully, director Andrea Arnold’s vision of a romantic road trip delivers everything it promises in one of the grandest statements of the fall movie season.
Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, American Honey is a hazy bus tour of America’s capitalist social ladder. The film follows 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) on her journey from dumpster-diving in Muskogee, Alabama, to selling magazines door-to-door across America’s Bible Belt.
The film begins in small-town Alabama, where she provides for her deadbeat boyfriend’s two young children. It’s not until she encounters Jake (Shia LaBeouf), Krystal (Riley Keough), and several other friends—dancing to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” atop a K-Mart checkout counter—that the film’s premise takes off. Star promptly casts aside her figurative shackles and quickly finds herself in a packed van, drinking Smirnoff and rapping to Kevin Gates with her new surrogate family.
American Honey’s music embodies the wild trans-American journey of its characters. It includes tracks from across the spectrum of American music, juxtaposing exuberant Atlanta trap with sentimental country, and some surprising alt-rock gems. Arnold’s choice to play Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s delicate “Careless Love” during Star’s tearful experiment with prostitution makes the scene all the more heartrending.
Star’s road trip probes the complexities of modern American society. From all-white cowboys in an all-white Cadillac, to condescending encounters with middle class mothers, to meth houses and malnourished children, the film’s door-to-door format is an ideal vehicle for Arnold’s comprehensive and personal tour of the South. As Star’s understanding of American wealth disparity broadens with each sales pitch, the experience of drunkenly rapping along to E-40 in a crowded van begins to feel more suffocating than liberating.
As Star’s disillusionment grows, one never feels as if Arnold is critiquing from an outsider’s perspective, largely due to Robbie Ryan’s brilliant cinematography. His style is shaky, but never obvious. Frequent shots of the passing landscape create a sense of realism removed from the trivialities of modern class distinctions that Star and her cohorts confront every day. The wandering gaze of Ryan’s camera is comparable to director Terrence Malick’s work, but the gritty realism of Star’s journey keeps this film tethered to Earth. The film’s brutal honesty is softened by its affinity for the South’s natural beauty. Expansive shots of oil fields, lens flares as the sunlight pokes through trees, and a fascination with wildlife offers respite from the heavy subject matter.
American Honey is rounded out with outstanding performances from its three leads. Sasha Lane’s magnetic debut will undoubtedly draw Oscar attention. Opposite her, Shia LaBeouf embodies the role he was born to play. Braided rat-tail trailing behind, Jake bounces across the screen, charming customers, stealing jewelry from homes, and tumbling across lawns making out with Star. Completing the love triangle, Riley Keough delivers an understated, authoritative performance as Krystal, ruling the sales crew with an iron fist.
One of the film’s flaws is its neglectful treatment of the crew’s other members. The rest of this tightknit band of individuals are acknowledged only as traits—one plays guitar, one is obsessed with Darth Vader, and another always whips his penis out—and serve as little more than the constantly partying background in shots of Star staring out the van window.
Through to its devastatingly ambiguous conclusion, American Honey is a dizzying tour through modern class divisions. The three-hour run time feels pleasantly spacious, allowing for thought-provoking contemplation. A film that will leave you reeling for days, American Honey is a grandiose statement that feels essential from start to finish.