Arthur Miller’s signature work featuring shambling door-to-door salesman Willy Loman certainly comes to mind more than once while experiencing British director Andrea Arnold’s first US feature, American Honey, a meandering road trip film about a ragtag crew of traveling teens selling magazine subscriptions. So named for the track from Lady Antebellum, the near three hour venture is strikingly similar to the director’s previous portraits of working class British women struggling with toxic day-to-day realities (particularly her Oscar winning 2003 short, “Wasp”). Though many may find the hefty running time unamenable, depending on whether you find its nomadic episodes elliptical or merely repetitive, there’s an eloquence to this persuasive rendering of a complicated con. Depicting a particular subculture of destitute white youths most often represented cinematically in degradation (i.e. white trash), a tugging hopefulness thanks to its strong female lead, newcomer Sasha Lane, makes this less of a departure and more of an interesting linear maneuver for the director.
Star (Lane) is an eighteen-year-old who escaped from a troubled home life only to end up in a dead end relationship with an older man who has two children from a previous relationship she’s charged with caring for. While hitch-hiking, she has a chance encounter with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), and their mutual attraction for one another inspires him to invite her to become a part of his crew of traveling salespeople who sell magazines. Taking him up on the offer, Star discovers the crew is actually run by Krystal (Riley Keough), a steely young woman who allows the newcomer to join her roughhewn team. Quickly, Star becomes involved in their hard-partying as she trains with Jake. But their blossoming feelings for one another soon leads to confusion, violence, and an even greater uncertainty for their futures.
Race, interestingly, is never directly addressed in American Honey, despite Lane’s aptly named Star standing out in a sea of white co-stars. What’s most interesting about this composition, whether intentional or not, is how it factors in to discussing divisive responses Arnold’s film has received. It’s hard not to question how much more warmly American Honey might be embraced across the board if the racial majority was reversed (or, in a global sense, if the mag crew consisted of illegal immigrants). Despite whatever subconscious reservations may inform responses to the film based on privileged perspective, it’s difficult to demean American Honey’s generously authentic and uneasy portrayal of a loosely structured vagabond culture which seems so archaic by contemporary standards this scenario may as well exist in a parallel universe.
Arnold collaborates with her regular DP Robbie Ryan (also the go-to for Ken Loach) to capture desolate American tableaus, where stretches of lonely, rural neighborhoods, seedy, cramped motels, and immaculate suburban sprawls provides the expressive backdrop for a motley crew of smoking, drinking, cursing teenagers/young adults.
Centering all of this is a quiet, but impressively commanding performance from Sasha Lane as Star, who manages a complex emotional range as a young woman with nothing to lose, tagging alone mostly due to an attraction and fascination with LaBeouf’s showboating lead ‘salesman.’ They have a believable chemistry together, and LaBeouf’s frequent rages gives the intense performer a believable palette, even if his presence automatically marks the film as a target for easy derision.
Other standouts include Arielle Holmes (of Heaven Knows What, 2014) as Pagan, a young woman obsessed with Darth Vader, because inside his formidable helmet he’s just a skeleton, like everyone else, and character actor Will Patton as a friendly cowboy/developer ‘client’ of Star’s. And then there’s a rather campy performance from Riley Keough, the leader of the crew whose sweaty make-up suggests either a recent episode of tears or post-coital bliss. While Keough does give a mightily enjoyable performance, her particularly hardboiled dialogue would have seemed all the more believable (and subversive) had Krystal been portrayed by a woman markedly older than her minions.
Much like her previous film, a 2012 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Arnold crafts a heightened sensory perception regarding her central character, aligning Star frequently with symbols suggesting she’s a force of nature. Releasing predatory insects, a delirious encounter with a bear, and a turtle installs her with a fairy-tale heroine quality, a flourish which is eventually overstepped during a sexual encounter with an oil field worker who pays her a thousand dollars for one of the most uninvolved acts of prostitution your cynical art-house moviegoer would expect. Since we’re so accustomed to the worst possible outcome, this nearly seems innovative. But whatever one’s qualms concerning the subject matter, American Honey is generously conceived and gorgeously photographed, and provides Sasha Lane a notable platform.
Reviewed on May 14 at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 162 Mins.