When Star (Sasha Lane) meets Jake (Shia LaBouef) he proposes that she join him and his friends in their work as a travelling magazine sales crew, in Andrea Arnold's latest Cannes triumph.
Their instant spark convinces her to abandon the broken and impoverished home life she leads in Kansas, and set out with the team. Under the watchful eye of the white trash queen bitch Krystal (Riley Keough), she travels the south and Midwest of America, selling subscriptions and experiencing a greater amount of life than she previously had. But as she pursues a relationship with Jake, her newfound freedom and family is placed in increasingly precarious situations.
Star puts a key audience question to her co-worker early on, regarding the central conceit of the job that I imagine many will scoff at: ‘Do people actually buy magazines anymore?’. The delightfully self-aware response of ‘Fuck no!’ is an early point of revelation for director Andrea Arnold. Because these kids aren’t really selling magazines, they’re selling their own livelihood – convincing the wealthy middle-class of America that their present and future is worth investing in. For Jake and the crew, selling involves a fair amount of lying to the prospective buyers but remaining true to each other.
For Star the opposite is true: by-and-large she’s more honest to the people she sells to, and interested in them personally. She uses the buyers’ interest in her as the way to get money out of them, and by convincingly returning that interest. One memorable moment sees Star accompanying a trucker for a few miles, and engaging him about his dreams, and what he wants, as much as he returns the favour for her. It’s a small, sweet scene that shows what it is about Star that makes her unique. And when Star comes across a home later in the film that’s not dissimilar from the one she abandoned, her reaction is even more profound.
What a coup it was for Arnold to pluck Sasha Lane from a Spring Break beach. From her opening scene of dumpster diving to the final tranquil moments, Lane is a supernova. Who knows what the future holds for a newcomer like her, or if the naturalism shown here could ever be repeated in a film with an actual script – what matters is that Lane makes every single one of Star’s choices, no matter how seemingly contrary, compelling. So when she knowingly sabotages a sale with Jake, it feels organic, although it couldn’t be any less so.
We need to talk about Shia. Whatever you think of his publicity stunts or “art” projects, he’s barely ever turned in a boring performance. Unlikeable, sure – I actually enjoy his arrogant dumbness in the Indiana Jones that-shall-not-be-named – but not dull. This works entirely in his favour as Jake, the embodiment of scuzzy bros everywhere. With his rat tail hair, charmingly manipulative selling strategies, and the wistful soul beneath it all who wants a simple life, he’s a modern archetype of youth, with that extra element of real depth. As confident and in control as he endeavours to be when training Star, he’s equally adrift and reckless when she starts running things her own way.
Actually, barring a commandingly mean bitch turn by Riley Keough (who is a much more dimensional actress than she appears here, no matter how entertaining), there isn’t a performance in American Honey that feels like performance. Not one of the van gang is wooden or awkward, unless they’re intentionally so, like the girl with a macabre obsession with Darth Vader. Naturalism is in every one of the actors, all improvising, all amplifying their own personalities.
Trouble is so few of them display any unique personalities beyond entirely superficial traits – the vast majority of them are boisterous, likeable, blank canvases, given to doing, saying, and being whatever Arnold requires of them in the moment. There’s the girl with the trucker cap, the guy who gets his dick out, a pretty girl, a pretty guy, a guy with a flying squirrel, and more as interchangeable as the rest.
The film’s 4:3 aspect ratio doesn’t just lend the warm cinematography an Instagram frame suitable to the content – that the ratio never expands with Star’s journey away from home towards greater freedom makes a brutally honest point about the way that life doesn’t immediately expand with “freedom”. It’s only made good by what you can fit into the frame. Sometimes that frame is sparsely populated, cluttered, out of focus, ugly, or profoundly beautiful.
There’s also a recurring motif of Star saving insects and small animals, particularly wasps. The sex scenes have all the immediacy you’d expect from an improvised film like this, and there’s a clear sense that Star always has more power than Jake; that her needs matter as much as his, partly because the film’s POV belongs strictly to her. That the world outside of the van doesn’t appear to exist, since Star never faces any consequences for her actions outside of that group of people, weakens the film. The more lawless parts of her adventure are largely inconsequential, and the film consistently deflates opportunities for tension or stakes in these scenarios.
If there’s a message at the heart of American Honey, it’s that the freedom of youth is overrated. Despite being rammed wall-to-wall with all the tropes of young life – cavalier use of drugs, drinking, casual sex, casual friendships, several sing-alongs to trap, rock, and pop music – Arnold underplays these so much, that it’s easy to forget that the kids are passing around weed, booze, maybe STDs. The camera is penetrative and frequently up-close; it’s passive and documentarian. Star and the audience are outsiders, even in scenes overflowing with an immensely chummy party vibe. There’s no sense of a ‘why’ to all the hedonism, it just ‘is’, and a lot of it isn’t particularly exciting.
American Honey is a film of a dozen contradictions. It’s captivating and fresh, yet it’s also repetitive and utterly familiar. It’s pretentious and ordinary, gorgeous and ugly, stupid and yet profoundly intelligent; it goes from being wildly energetic one moment, to punishingly stationary the next. As enjoyable as its looseness of structure can be, you find yourself asking if there wasn’t a more cinematic way to communicate its youthful values.
This is a road movie not only where the destination doesn’t matter, it doesn’t exist – we’re all navigating life without a road map and maybe that’s just something we have to come to terms with. It is difficult to come to terms with that choice in the film, however.
American Honey is out in the UK this Friday.