Utterly absorbing and intensely moving, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is one of those big, bold, swing-for-the-fences societal portraits that few filmmakers dare attempt. There’s good reason: Try for a definitive snapshot of a country or a generation, and you risk overreaching or succumbing to pretension. Running nearly three hours, American Honey doesn’t let those concerns get in its way, and the result is the sort of electric audacity that paves over the movie’s occasional wobbles. With Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold has looked closely at poverty, youth and desperation in her native England. With American Honey, she turns her attention to the United States, and what she finds is a vibrant, troubled, mesmerizing land.
The film stars newcomer Sasha Lane as Star, who is caring for two young children (her boyfriend’s, not hers), somewhere in the South. Dumpster diving, Star radiates the sort of scrappy, raw energy that marks her as someone who’s never had much money and always had to fight for everything she’s gotten. So, it’s fairly obvious why she takes a liking to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who drives by in a van with a group of young kids. Catching her eye, Jake is a fellow charming survivor, explaining that he’s part of a group that travels cross-country selling magazines door-to-door. Star can’t believe such an operation exists in the 21st century, but Jake swears there’s decent money to be made. Impulsively, she abandons her makeshift family—her boyfriend seems like a redneck cretin, anyway—and runs off to join another.
American Honey very consciously yearns to be an epic road trip, following along with Star and the rest of this ramshackle crew as they drive across the U.S. in a van. They’ll stop in different cities, hoping to convince locals to give them $30 or $40 for a subscription. (Early on, Star is coached by her colleagues, who all seem like they’re from broken homes, to lie if need be: Tell the customer your dad died in the military or that you’ve got some rare disease.) Working with frequent collaborator, cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who shoots the film in boxy Academy ratio), Arnold gives us spare, gorgeous shots of rolling highways and lovely sunsets, making America look like one sprawling landscape of opportunity and possibility. The streets aren’t exactly paved with gold, but you wouldn’t be surprised if they were.
It’s when Star starts meeting her potential customers that we begin to sense the country’s messy, diverse character, and Arnold unapologetically plays up America’s extremes. One house in Kansas City is owned by a Christian family, but considering the way the parents’ tween daughter and her friends dance sexily in the backyard, it’s unclear how pious their offspring really are. When Star’s crew make their way to Texas, she encounters three men who all wear white 10-gallon hats. These people are all stereotypes, but Arnold and her mostly non-professional cast bring them to such rambunctious life that they feel vivacious rather than reductive.
Arnold has often focused on outcasts and those living on the margins, but with American Honey she seems positively entranced by the United States’ kinetic strangeness. Despite the occasional presence of a Confederate flag or other fraught American symbols, the movie actually isn’t that judgmental about the people Star comes across. There is a clear attempt on the filmmaker’s part to provide some sort of exhaustive overview, a time-capsule snapshot, of the nation. What she discovers may be a bit overstated, but it’s unquestionably accurate in its overflowing energy.
American Honey is more than just a travelogue, though. Slowly, the sexual chemistry between Star and Jake explodes into moments of fevered screwing. (Arnold has proven herself to be a master of the palpably carnal sex scene in her previous films, and in this movie she tops herself several times.) But this tentative relationship is complicated by the fact that the magazine crew is run by Krystal (Riley Keough), a hardnosed boss who’s also Jake’s girlfriend. Jake tells Star they’ve got to keep their affair quiet since coworkers aren’t allowed to be romantically involved, which only confuses Star—what about Jake and Krystal’s very public coupling? Because Jake is older and intimidates her, Star quietly accepts it, but one of the underlying themes of American Honey is how this lost young woman will find some self-esteem after years of being abused by life.
Road trips need a soundtrack, of course, and Arnold has crafted an indelible one. In Red Road and Fish Tank, she showed an ability to select the perfect song to supplement a crucial scene. (Years later, I still can’t hear Nas’ “Life’s a Bitch” without thinking of Fish Tank’s emotional, impromptu dance number.) And with American Honey, she’s practically made a musical, the tunes reinforcing the characters’ mindset. Nearly wall-to-wall hip-hop dominates American Honey, not just because it’s the major musical force of Star’s generation, but because the specific rap they play articulates the get-rich fantasies to which they aspire. (Nobody’s bumping the more introspective and socially conscious music of Kendrick Lamar or even Kanye West.) Working with editor Joe Bini, Arnold cuts the song sequences as pure expressions of the characters’ naïve enthusiasm and starry aspirations, giving us a sense of living in their heads. American Honey doesn’t pity these kids, though—to the contrary, there’s an overriding compassion to this film, Arnold understanding how misfits learn to cling to one another when no one else wants them.
LaBeouf is a magnificent scuzzball as Jake, complete with perfectly obnoxious rat-tail. The character may be pure sleaze, but we can see why his bad-boy shtick would seduce Star—just as we’re able to see how the far more poised Krystal can easily control him. (Keough, so terrific in the recent Girlfriend Experience television series, doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but her icy, trashy confidence makes Krystal feel like the one grown-up on this traveling Neverland.)
But it’s Lane who steals the movie, this newbie projecting an almost feral vibrancy that makes her character’s next move consistently unpredictable. One moment, she’s a real sweetheart, but then her anger flares up, almost as if what’s upset her is actually connected to some hidden past trauma. Cultivating her sex appeal, hoping for a place to belong, Star is looking for something indescribable on this odyssey—she won’t know what it is until she sees it. The heartbreaking beauty of American Honey is in its insistence that such a dream is anyone’s right. The United States has often promoted itself as a place for second chances. All Star wants is any chance at all.
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writer: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.