American Honey is one of those movies that only comes around once in a great while. Like some of the best of the early 21st century, its confidence and sheer staying power outranks its minor flaws.
For example, the non-climax of No Country for Old Men rankled some people, but it wasn’t enough to keep it from winning the Best Picture Oscar and consistently ranking among the very best of the Coen Brothers and of the century so far. In the case of Andrea Arnold’s ‘American Honey,’ the film’s taxing length is offset by its expert verisimilitude, impeccable storytelling, and an all-time haunting ending.
Sasha Lane makes a striking acting debut as Star, an impoverished young woman who begins the film having found herself on the wrong side of an abusive relationship. After a remarkable scene in which she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) for the first time in a supermarket, Star decides to drop off the kids she’d been looking after with their real mother and follow the charming Jake and his ragtag group of young misfit magazine salespeople.
Jake trains new recruits, but what makes Star’s training different is her inability to lie when selling door-to-door. Her abrasive personality inevitably clashes with the affluent, right-wing neighborhoods the group often travels through.
One of the film’s best moments is when, as Jake tries to couch a sale in a story about a ‘student organization,’ Star is told by a housewife that “the devil has a hold” on her because of her rudeness. She’s been observing the tweens dancing in the backyard, and responds curtly with, “I think the devil has a hold of your daughter.”
American Honey lives in that dichotomy between two sides of the American dream. It zealously explores how the cultures one grows up in affect one’s perception of what that dream means.
Star is not even as high on the economic ladder as her poor compatriots in the traveling van, but she finds a strange sense of family with them. Jake’s relative affluence and all-smiles personality draw her in, and very soon, the two are having an affair.
Crystal (Riley Keough), ostensibly Jake’s girlfriend and the de facto leader of the whole group, provides the disillusionment the movie needs. Her laser-focused gaze seems to reign over every action Star takes, whether it’s to impress Jake with an unconventional sale or to make him envious of her individuality.
The dynamic between the three lead characters becomes a part of that subtle American-dream allegory. Star is special and she knows it, but she has no idea how to use this to her advantage because the rules of the elite are nothing like her own.
Andrea Arnold draws us in to this hypnotic and fascinating narrative by filming it all like a well-produced home movie. The camerawork by director of photography Robbie Ryan is stunningly voyeuristic without being distracting. And somehow, the film’s 35mm Academy ratio (which Arnold used before in Fish Tank) makes it feel more inviting and enveloping.
As I walked out of this movie, my friend and I debated about several things: the authenticity of Jake’s feelings for Star, Arnold’s eye for socioeconomic tensions, the meaning of the film in general. But one thing that is undebatable is the quality of thought and passion on display at all levels in American Honey.
American Honey is something wondrous to behold. It’s a film whose potency threatens to nestle its way into your very soul. I felt like I was a completely different person – a better person – for having seen this film.
American Honey = A+
American Honey is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug/alcohol abuse – all involving teens.