During a year of many disappointing films about so little, it's about time we got an exhilarating film that's about so much.
American Honey is the fourth film from indie director/writer Andrea Arnold, a British filmmaker whose work tears away convention like tattered clothes and spills out human life like a ritual sacrifice. This movie's plot- which could be dismissed by less attentive viewers as 2 hours and 45 minutes of little to no story- follows a group of friends selling magazines in the Deep South and Midwest. They make money, they make love, they drink and do drugs, they sing and dance and drive elsewhere to do it all again.
So what is there to American Honey? What keeps it from being nothing more than a fever dream of the "young, wild, and free" generation? Well, a lot- but make no mistake, this film is a feverish nightmare that picks apart the YOLO mentality and leaves its adherents gasping for purpose, both in the movie and in its audience.
The film lives up to all this high praise because it understands the sometimes lost art of making a movie meaningful: be about people; write human beings that craft a statement. American Honey primarily follows Star (Sasha Lane), an 18 year old girl trapped in an abusive relationship and taking care of someone else's kids. She meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) after she watches him dance to Rihanna's "We Found Love" on a Kmart checkout counter. Jake offers Star a job traveling the country with his magazine selling crew; Star gives up the little she has to join the hedonistic road trip.
Before I dig into the intricate layers of what American Honey has to offer, I must write awestruck and commend the performances of both Lane and LaBeouf. This is Lane's first role- she was a college dropout working as a waitress before the director discovered her- but she breaks onto the scene with a magnetic immediacy. Her mesmerizing authenticity as a naive young girl learning life's hardest lessons acts as a conduit for the film's many themes: she grabs us by the empathy and drowns us with her.
LaBeouf demonstrates astounding maturity as Jake, an eloquent renegade with a rat tail who either has the soul of a lover or a pimp. He plays into this duality with nuance and dedication, yet somehow ties the character together into one irresistible human. Somewhere along the way LaBeouf became one of the best young actors working today. All of his weird performance art fiascos must have unlocked the artist within.
So what is there to glean from American Honey?
Much of American Honey's storytelling power stems from its characters and their context. Every person (expect Star) traveling around with the magazine team falls into the same demographic: young, white, poor, pleasure-seeking, disenfranchised- the spurned children of the people our society labels 'white trash'.
And so American Honey takes us on a journey through their America: a vast land of wasted potential and squandered dreams; a country in which the "small town/hard work" ethics of the previous Southern generation have inspired a generation of "do what feels good" disciples to commit to a life of making money and having fun. At no point does the film glorify such behavior: its focus is inward and analytical.
Arnold's screenplay completely eschews traditional three act structure. American Honey is a nearly 3 hour film with no clear beginning, middle, or end: it progresses at the speed of real life without any narrative signals. This is purposeful: Arnold is giving us ample time to discover the conclusions American Honey offers through its characters and context.
I saw a tale of people who intentionally sequestered themselves away from the marginalized and the different, and the consequences they paid for it. Hints abound: the team's manager wears a Confederate flag bikini, the group takes financial advantage of groups they do not fit into (be they rich elite or drug-addled poor), Star is the only non-white salesperson and the only one who doesn't fully buy the lifestyle of her peers. Through these narrative undertones, I saw the story of America's last breed of white nationalists- and I saw them enjoying themselves to death.
But that's just one of many potential stories that American Honey tells with its audacious scope and detailed subtext, captured startlingly by cinematographer Robbie Ryan's naturalistic eye.
Choose to pay more attention to the parallels between Star's old relationship, her connection with Jake, and her interactions with older men: the overarching themes might teach you about the relationship between patriarchy, wealth, and sexual ethics. Dissect the songs the team listens to: you could delve deeper into their desires and how they are born of economic situation. There's even a narrative about innocence and its loss told entirely through visual metaphors of insects and other animals.
The only real flaw I can find in the film is its length. Even the greatest of works can grow tiring after too long of a time, and though I repeatedly swore to myself that I could not tire of American Honey, I started praying for an ending around the 140 minute mark. It's less self-indulgence; it's almost like there are too many good ideas. Despite how much more I want to learn from the movie, I doubt I'll ever watch it again due to the runtime.
See American Honey and study Andrea Arnold's point of view, to explore your point of view. And have all the fun of a character-driven coming of age story along the way. This is independent storytelling at its best.