Director: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LeBeouf, Riley Keough, and Will Patton
There is a moment in director Andrea Arnold’s film “American Honey” where a group of young people party around a bonfire behind a hotel, you can feel the tension, the frustration, the anger, and the confusion of youth in this instant, it’s one of the most genuine and authentic moments of any film this year. The achievement of “American Honey”, amidst a slew of imperfections, is that it operates to create these kinds of raw and honest moments that you can’t help but be drawn into the world of the characters.
Ms. Arnold composes this film in a very authentic way, cameras on shoulders walking with characters, cameras sitting next to characters as if you are part of the conversation, like a silent character interwoven into the narrative. This is the method that defines every step of “American Honey”, a rather long and many times drawn out experiment developed through a group of young people making their way, somewhat aimlessly, through the world.
Star (Sasha Lane) is a young woman watching over her siblings, dumpster diving and hitchhiking in a small town. Star is anxious and worn-out, she is looking for a way out of a life that doesn’t display any sort of direction. Escape comes in the form of an enigmatic traveller named Jake (Shia LeBeouf) who travels from state-to-state selling magazine subscriptions. Star runs away and into the midst of this group of travellers, who are all working for a woman named Krystal (Riley Keough) who is queen to this group of wanderers.
“American Honey” can be a difficult film at times. It’s a meticulous process, one that takes its time building an experience. The fact that Ms. Arnold is patient enough as a filmmaker to let things happen and unravel organically is impressive. She many times finds the beauty in the most mundane of situations and places. With that said, it also doesn’t work like it should many times throughout. The film meanders from scene to scene, with images of Middle America as a backdrop and the constant reminder of the socioeconomic divide throughout America in the form of environment and with the characters composing a road traveling family from different walks of life. When the film succeeds, these aspects all shine in the very effective ways.
It's easy to see that these young people are desperate for change, but they are also complaisant when they find something comfortable. You can feel the yearning for bigger opportunities from them; their entire job as door-to-door sales people is based around being the biggest "earner" for the company, an achievement that comes with perks like riding around in a Mustang convertible and playing the role of leader to the group. Shia LeBeouf's character Jake is this company superstar, yet even in this sought after position Jake is still unsatisfied. This remains a theme throughout for these young people. Will they every find something that they are truly content with, something that makes them happy?
Ms. Arnold does an exceptional job with these young characters, many of them first time actors. In the lead is Sasha Lane, an actress picked off the beach in Florida by the director, who brings a fiery ambition and a lively energy to the role of Star. Shia LeBeouf is the most recognizable name in the film, he is given plenty of room to compose the dangerous character and the result is a mixed bag of emotions which is exactly what the character is. One moment ready to risk everything and the next firmly planted in a place of indecision. One of the best performances comes from Riley Keough playing the opportunistic boss of the group. She is menacing and compassionate, sometimes at the same time; a character that feels pulled from another film, "Spring Breakers", that deals with these same coming-of-age themes.
"American Honey", a title taken from a Lady Antebellum song, is going to connect differently with each individual person. Everyone has a different perspective of the world because of experiences taken from the journey through it. That's what this film ultimately is, a journey through environments with no clear ending or easily explained theme. It's not so much about the destination but rather the journey. Some trips are long and arduous, something you'd never want to do again. Some are life affirming and rewarding, something you'll want to cherish and recreate. The journey through "American Honey" will be a similar path.
3.50 out of 5.0