Writer/director Andrea Arnold‘s American Honey is lavishly decadent in its depiction of a group of teens who travel the country selling magazines door-to-door during the day and partying hard at night. Our entrance into the story is Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), the oldest of three who spends her days dumpster diving for food until she bumps into Jake (a charismatic Shia LaBeouf) and his van full of misfits. Immediately, Jake offers her a job with his crew, setting into motion a story that is equal parts captivating and purposeless.
Where American Honey succeeds is multi-faceted. Arnold amasses a cast of mostly unknowns to fill every part in the picture, with the exception of LaBeouf, Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road/Magic Mike) as group leader Krystal, and Will Patton (Falling Skies/Remember the Titans) as Backseat Cowboy. By casting unknowns, there’s a tangible aurora of innocence that hovers over them, infusing the scenes with extra emotional weight whether joyful or heartbreaking. Cleverly, rather than provide equal time to each actor, Arnold keeps the focus on Star and her perspective, meaning that the audience only sees what Star sees and hears what Star hears. This narrative style, combined with the technical technique of 4:3 standard ratio, creates an enormous void of information, forcing the audience to make the same inferences about everything as Star does. Additionally, Arnold implants a naturalistic, almost tribal, feel to everything the crew does. Each member comes from a different place, yet gets accepted immediately. They each get a chance to pick the music, with many songs sung in near unison, eliciting a group-like chant. When the end of the week comes, the two lowest earners brawl, not out of a desire to hurt, but because those are the rules of crew: you earn or you fight. On the whole, Arnold fills American Honey with realistic depictions of lost youth banding together to create a family for themselves.
Unfortunately, where American Honey falters is maintaining a responsible narrative. Star’s journey, while it continues long after the credits roll, is purposeless, which is the exact opposite of Arnold’s clear intent in the depiction of Krystal and her road crew. Throughout the film, characters speak time and again about consequence, how what they do is a result of trying to get distance from something else, and that their actions now are not without impact. It’s clear that these road warriors are fully engaged and accepting of their life on the road. They abide Krystal’s rules and recognize that indiscretions are met with swift, and often severe, penalties. They see her as guardian and ruler of their tribe, willing to do whatever it takes to keep the party going. In contrast, Star consistently makes choices against her better interest time and again without consequence. Star – as wonderful as Sasha Lane is in the role – is the anchor by which the story succeeds or fails. She is neither hero nor villain; rather, she’s too naïve for the world. Star never fully buys into the premise of selling magazines, instead she focuses more and more on doing whatever she can to impress Jake. With her focus on him, rather than seeing a young woman taking control of her life on her terms, we see a lost girl pretending to be an adult but who can’t handle the responsibility that comes with it. Her life is surely better being on the road, than being at home, but as a person, she never improves or gains insight. Ultimately, when it’s all over, Star leads the audience to a conclusion that is as ambiguous as it is dissatisfying.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.