When reading The New York Times, director Andrea Arnold came across a story about teenagers going across the country selling magazine subscriptions. Lead by their own version of Oliver Twist’s Fagin, they ran away from broken homes in order to find their own American Dream. Arnold recreated that life in American Honey. Instead of hiring established actors, Arnold brought in teenagers from the magazine business. Even the lead, Sasha Lane, had no professional experience (she had been found while partying during Spring Break). Knowing that these kids are most likely in the same state as their movie counterparts makes you empathize with them on a deeper level. Having personally known people who had been in this life, I found it oddly biographical. The road trips, coworkers, and customers are all stories that I’ve heard in my own life. In its intimidating three hour runtime, Arnold paints a picture of this faux American dream that is dirty, but all too real.
The film opens with Star (Lane) scavenging for food in a dumpster so her little siblings can eat. Home is a horrible place with a sexually abusive stepfather and an absent stepmother who would rather be square dancing than taking care of her kids. While at the grocery store, she spots the flirty bad-boy Jake (Shia Labeouf), who sports an ugly eyebrow piercing and an even uglier braid. He is ejected from the grocery store for dancing on top of counters to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love,” but attracts Star with his party-boy personality. He invites her to join their magazine selling crew, led by the sleazy, no-bullshitter, Krystal (Riley Keough). From there, we are brought into their exclusive club where we meet these individuals who have come from broken homes, or who just wanted to get away. The film may focus primarily on Star and Jake’s relationship, but this diverse group keeps the film afloat.
There really isn’t a story in Arnold’s three hour endeavor, but it’s not that important. We have the road and van guiding us from city to city. This is her first American film and illustrates her appreciation of the setting. She keeps away from the convoluted plots and focuses on the naturalism of the American south. Though this isn’t a film about poverty, she gives glimpses of the recession-ridden society and the parallels between the rich and poor. Star’s magazine selling quickly turns into mini adventures that vary from inspiring to potentially dangerous. But even in those terrifying situations (such as going on a “date” with an oil worker), Arnold keeps the female gaze strong, rarely leaving her face while in the moment. Star may be dangerously naive, but she is never a victim and does everything on her own accord.
LaBeouf may be known for his strange artistic choices, but he is truly a talent. Jake is a complex character who has more layers than one would initially think. Though he doesn’t do much more than party and have sex, there are a couple of key scenes where you see Labeouf’s acting really take off. When Star disapproves of his lying in order to meet sales, he tells her what he has famously told us: “Just do it.” Arnold never clearly defines this relationship, letting the audience determine how toxic this romance is.
The film may be three hours long, but it’s worth every minute. Arnold creates Emerson-esque poetry in all of her shots of the tumbleweeds and lurking creatures. You feel her admiration of American soil and you also start to see it as some exotic location. She creates her own On the Road in the eyes of a naive 18-year-old and focuses on her strengths rather than her weaknesses. American Honey may not be everyone’s idea of a road trip, but it’s certainly a car ride you wouldn’t want to miss.