Following a rag-tag group of teens selling and sexing across the mid-West, American Honey is a modern-day Kids, minus that film’s relentless pessimism and narrative drive. With a near interminable three-hour running time, director Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature is fuelled by muddled hope and hunger, and the boundless energy of its kinetic youthful stars. If slam-bangin’ road movies across the corroded skeleton of America are your thing, read on.
American Honey revolves around Star (magnetic first-timer Sasha Lane), a young adult trapped in squalor with her appalling dad. Her father would rather hit on her than do anything for her and her two young step-siblings. It’s a poverty-stricken horror show that doesn’t pull any punches. At the local supermarket, she meets cocksure Jake (Shia LaBoeuf, getting paid for the shenanigans that animate his real life), dancing with his traveling crew to the strains of Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love”. He’s ejected by security, but she follows him into the parking lot, fascinated. It’s kismet calamity, a meet-cute with the kind of friction that screams these two are gonna get burned.
Star goes on the road with Jake and his crew (real kids Arnold plucked during scouting for the film, auditioning them on the spot). They sell magazine subscriptions from one neighborhood to the next, a trash offering hardly anyone wants, but they know how to hawk. When they aren’t grifting housewives and truck drivers, they’re partying at a succession of divey motels, or singing carpool karaoke to blistering “get my money” rap. The boss of the crew and the pointy end of the inevitable love triangle is Krystal (Riley Keough), a sharp-edged manager who keeps her salesforce and her best-seller beau Jake on a tight leash. Krystal radiates a trashy glam and command that Star is fascinated by, and a little afraid of.
Nothing in the film is straightforward beyond this basic structure, as Arnold is content to detour repeatedly. Jake tries to show Star the ropes but she doesn’t want to play along with the selling game. Class conflict bubbles in the background, Star calling a well-off mother on her dismissive bullshit in front of a dismayed Jake. This is not how you bring home the bacon, and Star is derailing Jake’s successful flow as surely as their mercurial chemistry heats up.
Arnold’s direction excels at capturing rapturous moments, and waits, many times too long, for them to happen. The English director has been hanging around herself for a fair while. Her slow-boiling Glasgow surveillance thriller Red Road was an intriguing debut in 2007, and won her the first of three Cannes Jury Prizes she’s picked up since then. Her follow-up Fish Tank garnered more attention for its portrait of an in-your-face troubled British teen girl, and then she ran her career onto the rocks with the period piece Wuthering Heights.
Like many English artists, Arnold’s found herself again in the wide spaces and frenetic energy of America. Endless vistas of flat lands, chain stores, gas stations, housing tracts and the burning wells of the Texas oil fields conjure a land choking on its fabled opportunity. Beautiful shots abound, and the handheld camera delivers its usual immediacy. The film’s meandering structure, over-cranked soundtrack verve and formless anger are bound to find resonance with a millennial audience, capturing the aimless spirals of modern living, pointless jobs on the periphery and pointless people that got lucky and have too much. The crew of teen sellers aren’t quite memorable themselves, but they’re a believable tribe, living the hustle that’s the only thing America ever taught them. “Ain’t gonna lie, ain’t gonna compromise” they holler along to a boastful rap song, oblivious to the reality their lives are based on a precarious pyramid scheme of selling and grift they barely profit from. Or maybe they’re in on the joke, that this is the reductio ad absurdum of the American dream.
“What are your dreams,” a nice old trucker asks Star on one of her sojourns. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” she replies. American Honey revels in the question, and maybe hanging onto innocence is Star’s answer, wrapped up in mundane visions of a trailer of her own and lots of kids. Walking the line between innocence and ignorance, Star and Jake can’t quite find themselves, in each other or anything else. And over the course of two-hours-and-forty-three minutes, neither can American Honey. The journey’s the thing, people always say. Maybe it’s time someone picked a destination.