Andrea Arnold is that rare director who employs a cinema verité style to let a moment unfold in an unexpected fashion. In her latest feature American Honey, she lets the audience feel like a visitor and doesn’t intrude as her subjects determine how the action reaches its beat.
We meet Star (Sasha Lane) as she forages for foodstuffs behind a supermarket with her two younger siblings. When a van of raucous people rolls by, Star fixates longingly on the flirtatious Jake (an electric Shia LaBeouf) while the music aptly chimes in with Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love.” It’s that promise of a good time and escape that prompts her to leave behind her siblings in a wrenching moment that reminds you of Arnold’s seminal film, Fish Tank.
Star joins this ragtag bunch on the road, as they sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door and party harder in the evening. Running the show is Krystal (Riley Keough), capitalism embodied in a Confederate bikini. They’re not invested in what they’re selling but a sob story goes along way when the gang split off into upwardly mobile suburbs. Krystal gives the gang the illusion they’re free but icily reminds them they’ll be cast adrift if they don’t make money.
Arnold’s work often depends on non-professional actors carrying the narrative forward, and Lane is stunning. She never hits a wrong note even as Star gets into harrowing situations on the road. Lane is heartbreaking when she realizes the road and Jake’s faithfulness aren’t as promised. It’s easy to look at LaBeouf and think it’s stunt casting, but in his wild and meta performance, he’s captivating. Lane and LeBeouf have such a winning chemistry that you hope they’ll work it out.
In my scribbled notes I wrote that the film was, “what Spring Breakers should’ve been like.” It’s relevant to compare the two films since they’re full of debauchery and hedonism from a female perspective, but Arnold holds tight focus on Star’s experience rather than the men around her. There’s no gratuitous time devoted to LaBeouf over Lane, unlike Korine’s film that got infatuated by James Franco and Gucci Mane at the expense of how the nonstop fun affected its female characters.
In that sense, it’s such a relief to see Arnold embrace all the trappings of a road movie with its fantastic soundtrack and camaraderie between the gang. The singalong to Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey,” stands out as a complete heartbreaker and a mature moment for Star as she realizes that the dynamic has changed forever. Casting her lens away from England, Arnold makes you fall for the Americana iconography and milieus with its scuzzy motels, posh suburbs where Jake and Star hustle in, to the rolling fields, and stunning rocky hills where they stop to pee!
American Honey confirms why Andrea Arnold is one of the great directors who can cast her eye towards the forgotten and revel in their triumphs and heartbreak.