Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is not a typical teenage girl movie. It isn’t a comedy. Its protagonist, 18 year old Star (Sasha Lane), isn’t funny, cutsie, bitchy, or crazy. To the contrary, she’s smart, strong, serious, and quite desperate. Star is pursuing a boy, but her agenda extends beyond that, even if she doesn’t realize it. She also seems acutely aware that for better or for worse, she’s in control of her own fate.
American Honey opens with Star and two young kids chained to her side digging out discarded chickens from a dumpster for dinner. They walk aimlessly to K-Mart—a place I had no idea still exists—where they cross paths with a feral band of cracky-looking misfits led by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a ringleader of sorts for the trailer park set. Star and Jake flirt, but security ejects Jake and his posse from the store when they get rowdy. Star ends up with Jake’s phone, giving her the perfect opportunity to continue their encounter in the parking lot. Smitten, she ditches the kids (it turns out they’re not hers) and takes him up on his offer to join him and his “mag crew” on the road.
A “mag crew” is a nomadic lot of door-to-door sales reps, usually kids, hawking magazine subscriptions (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/02/21/us/21magcrew.html). The environment is cutthroat and the crew is often abused and exploited. Jake’s crew sells magazines in small mainly rural towns throughout middle America—places like Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, and Missouri. It doesn’t sound fun or profitable, but it works for Star—for a little while, anyway. Despite unrelenting shade from the crew’s manager, suspicious and bossy queen bee Krystal (Riley Keough), Star finds her stride in this ragtag mess, competing for sales, partying with the group, and getting involved with Jake, the top salesman who takes her under his wing and trains her. As rapper E-40 says in “Choices,” one of the songs used for the soundtrack, “I choose to get money, I’m stuck to this bread.”
American Honey doesn’t feel very structured; it plays out more as improvisation than something planned from a script. At times, the pace is rambling and almost painfully slow, which usually sounds the death knell for a lengthy film such as this. Surprisingly, it works for these characters and this story. Arnold is clearly interested in the geographical, cultural, and economic continental divide of America, and she’s adept at exhibiting this through her artistic choices. The settings—mostly barren highways, shitty little meth towns, cheap roadside motels and truck stops, even an oil field—nicely frame the characters’ collective circumstances. The locations provide precisely the backdrop one would expect in a road movie, but somehow they’re more beautiful here. The music is a hodgepodge of genres from techno to country to rap to folk, and it all fits perfectly. I must confess, I downloaded the soundtrack (Bruce Springsteen is not on it). American Honey paints a lusty, vivid picture of life on the fringe.
Newcomer Lane is intriguing and charismatic; it’s hard to believe this is her first film. The part of Jake seems tailor made for LaBeouf, who brings a volatile, forboding edge to his character. The supporting cast is adequate but for the most part forgettable. A few stand out. One is QT (Veronica Ezell), a friendly and chubby pot smoking hippy. Another is Pagan (Arielle Holmes), a sweet goth chick obsessed with Star Wars. The true scene stealer, though, is Corey (McCaul Lombardi), the tanned, blue-eyed, tattooed, fake blonde horndog party boy with a penchant for whipping out his dick whenever because, well, he can. I hope and expect to see more of him and his chiseled cheekbones in the future.
I doubt American Honey has mainstream appeal; it’s too fluid, subtle, and open-ended. It’s got its flaws, but I loved it. On the surface, it’s a road movie about a girl pursuing a boy. The real narrative, though, is much deeper. Like the character in the Lady Antebellum song that gives this film its title, Star literally grows up on the side of the road, and does so before our eyes. She starts out a kid. In the final scene, she immerses herself in a pond, an event spurred by a turtle Jake gives her and likely by a few hungry, neglected children she encounters on her own while selling magazines earlier that day. Her “baptism” is symbolic: with it, Star resigns herself to the fact that she has a role in the grand sceme of things even if she’s never going to get all she wants. In other words, she’s grown up. It’s a gorgeously demonstrated point, if you can make it all the way to the end.