American Honey

American Honey ★★★★

Andrea Arnold writes and directs this drama about Star, a girl who leaves her troubled home life and joins a group of young people selling magazines door-to-door, discovering that this apparently carefree life has drawbacks, with Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough.

It’s epic in scope, following the crew as they travel across the Midwest attempting to sell as much as they can over the course of a summer. Though the focus is quite narrow, the story manages to cover quite a lot of themes, with the characters pursuing their own version of the American Dream to varying levels of success.

Despite trying to be outside of the “mainstream” and distancing themselves from the materialistic people they meet along the way the crew are still very motivated by earning money, this tension between aspiration and reality driving the film. Even though they’ll probably never be able to get there, the characters still dream of bettering themselves, an optimism that’s reflected in the aspirational soundtrack that drives the story.

Because the characters don’t say all that much, listening to the music is their way of communicating with each other, with Arnold positioning the audience as part of their journey. Despite (or perhaps because of) the lengthy runtime, it becomes a very immersive, experiencing it all with them as the initial freedom moves into something much tougher and less glamorous.

The film has a kind of dreamlike quality to it, the soft lighting and subjective angle giving a heightened, almost ethereal effect that matches the hopes of the characters, using realism but enhancing it. As a result, there’s something quietly compelling about the slow, measured way events play out, filled with memorable and sometimes haunting imagery that adds to the story.

The film doesn’t shy away from the dangers the mag crew face along the way, with some particularly disturbing moments towards the end, Star does whatever she can to sell. These crews actually do travel around America, and the film really shows just how difficult it is as a career, the employees having to rely on skill and ingenuity to make ends meet.

Adding to this sense of realism, the cast is mainly made up of teenagers cast on the street, Arnold approaching them in a similar way that their characters would have been hired. Lane, in her first role, gives a really naturalistic and understated performance as Star, able to show so much about the character’s naïveté and gradual awareness even without much dialogue, as she comes to realise freedom doesn’t necessarily come from being on the road.

As the veteran seller who takes Star under his wing, LaBeouf is also really good, finding the right mix of exuberance and world-weariness in the experienced hustler. He’s one of the few professional actors in the cast, and I suppose that reflects his character’s seniority, spinning tales about his non-existent family to gain the trust of prospective buyers. He’s almost like what Star could become, having charm but ultimately lacking in scruples, which seems to comment on the way the lifestyle corrupts those part of it for too long. 

Even though the group feels like a community, Star is mainly shown as being an outsider, distanced from the others and finding her solitude mainly in the brief moments she spends in the countryside. Arnold seems to be suggesting that the natural world is the true way to escape, although like in her debut short Wasp the constant metaphorical use of insects trapped against windows to show entrapment is a bit too on the nose to have the full intended impact.

This also extends to the supporting characters, who are quite thinly sketched beyond their basic characteristics, too one note to be particularly likeable or sympathetic. I thought it would be more of an ensemble, but the focus is mainly on Lane and LaBeouf’s characters, which I suppose does their relationship but at the cost of sidelining the others. 

The story itself is quite thin, and often feels aimless, but the style and performances drew me in after a while, making up for some of the weaker parts of the narrative. There’s no real need for it to be so long, especially as a lot of the bigger themes are never quite developed enough despite the runtime. As a result, it never quite manages to tie all of the ideas and themes together into one complete big picture, but has enough great elements to still work most of the time.

American Honey’s ambition means that not all of it works, with the mood often doing the heavy lifting, but it’s still an absorbing take on the road trip movie, filtered through Arnold’s distinctive sensibilities to produce a lyrical tribute to dreamers and underdogs.

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