Sasha Lane gives an extraordinary, career-making performance in Andrea Arnold’s new film American Honey; a vivid, vibrant, visually exhilarating road movie that provides a fascinating insight into present youth culture and the fragmented, elusive American dream.
We first meet Lane’s character, Star, rummaging in bins to find food for two younger siblings in her care. Hers is a daily grind of crushing poverty and abuse at the hands of her father, but already, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, she is lying in the gutter but looking at the stars. Her chance to escape is provided by an encounter with Jake (Shia LeBeouf in something of a comeback role). He encourages her to join their group of young people who drive across the US to sell magazine subscriptions by any means necessary. Star agrees to this, and so begins what is essentially a meditative road movie that becomes a kind of anti-Easy Rider. Unlike that film, instead of running from the Establishment, this one tries to find what is left of a shattered American Dream, as the characters desperately try to make money by any means. Nothing, it seems, is off limits in this pursuit. Lying and stealing become routine, and yet in the midst of this the romantic chemistry between Star and Jake is tangible. Sparks fly, they appear to fall in love, but Jake frequently backs off, perhaps due to his relationship with their employer, the ice cold Krystal (Riley Keough). Yet Jake also has outrageous fits of furniture throwing jealousy, worries about Star’s safety amid some of her more reckless moments, and clearly cares about her – despite what Krystal says to the contrary.
Arnold’s choice to shoot in the nearly square Academy aspect ratio proves an inspired one, as it allows for beautiful tall landscapes, echoing the dreamlike imagery of Terrence Malick. In fact, the film often feels like a strange fusion of Malick and the social realist sensibilities of Ken Loach in its exploration of the massive class divides in America. Images of flightless birds and insects (with a rare shot of a bird actually flying at one key point) provide an interesting visual metaphor for the young people in the story, and their aspirations and dreams. At the same time the film doesn’t shy away from grim deprivation. Yet nor does it wallow in it. There are many joyful sequences, particularly those involving partying in various settings. Incidentally, Arnold makes good use of the pop soundtrack, particularly Rihanna/Calvin Harris’s We Found Love in two key sequences.
At this point I should add warnings for very strong language, sex scenes, nudity, drug taking and so forth. However, these factors are an important part of the raw, realistic, warts-and-all verite tone, and whilst this certainly isn’t a film for everyone, it is one that contains enough food for thought to prevent older audiences dismissing it as an aimless, narcissistic tale of young exhibitionists and their rap music. In fact, despite overlength and a meandering narrative that focuses on individual dramatic vignettes rather than a strict three-act plot, the quality of the performances and direction alone makes this an important film for anyone with a serious interest in cinema.