In her first America-set feature American Honey, Andrea Arnold paints the stateside landscape as a soul dying at the end of capitalism’s food chain. It’s fitting that the film is a road movie to nowhere, showcasing our current youth as looking for meaning in something, anything. But the film (even with its nearly three hour length) is anything but lethargic in its malaise, finding breathtakingly alive moments and the idiosyncratic in the sub-average. American Honey captures the feeling of being lost at sea, but the film is anything but.
In the searching face of newcomer Sasha Lane as Star, America’s optimistic youthful heart is shown as more conflicted than any obvious metaphor could convey. We find her nonchalantly digging through a dumpster for food with her younger half-siblings, only to go home to a predatory father figure and absentee mother – the actual parentage and family unit being of Arnold’s many instances of vagueness becoming hyper-specific and illuminating about this view of rural poverty. When Star sees Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his rowdy crew making a scene in K-Mart, her longing is ignited to the appropriately hopeful but faded sound of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” on the loudspeaker.
Star takes the opportunity to run off with Jake’s ragtag outfit, a traveling scheme selling magazines door-to-door led by the looming Krystal (a cruelly conscientious and fascinating Riley Keough). Packed into a bus of lost children, each of her fellow coworkers (including Heaven Knows What’s Arielle Holmes) are unknowable spectres, the anonymous unwanteds trying to make some kind of escape. Their game relies on blind determination and manipulating perceptions of their social status and background, relying on whatever wills they have to get ahead of Krystal’s hard line expectations. Star can’t quite submit to even this low-level bit of hustle, spending the majority of her energies pining for Jake’s affections.
The ensuing affair is exactly the distraction Arnold is examining in the American psyche, rendered in breathless long takes and ferocious abandon. Shot in the Academy ratio, Arnold reunites with her Fish Tank cinematographer Robbie Ryan for a film that visual captures both its heroine’s hope and her punishing circumstances. Single shots can be at once expansive and claustrophobic, puffing up the young woman with the own myopic, mythic perspective of youth. But just as Star is ambivalent of the social structures that cage her, Ryan’s frame traps and corners her. The film is never less than a fascinating visual experience.
What may be a long sit for some enhances both Star’s displacement and allows Arnold’s rich themes to uncaustically take root. Whole states are crossed while the surrounding feel sickly familiar as the futile endless cycle becomes more obvious. The magazine sales business also represents that end of the food chain of American business, jobs no one wants that prey on the naive and optionless with legality a constant grey area and safety occasionally being expendable. It’s less an Odyssey through the map of American poverty than it is through the social structures that keep its denizens complacent and submitted.
By the time the film reaches its Lady Antebellum namesake singalong, we can see the group as the rusted final cogs of a much larger machine. The sing of nostalgia and longing for the sweet simple life of youth while Arnold’s detached camera limits our own absorption into the cheap comfort, reminding us of the manipulation inherent in such a message meant for this very audience. Its members experience a moment of togetherness, but we can only see how they’ve been indoctrinated by a mindset that keeps them in their place.
The genius of the film is that Arnold can approach such a scene without condemnation towards its inhabitants. The film is at once scathing and compassionate, never defaulting to cruel judgment or pity in its study of their submission. In Star, the film finds a young woman wanting desperately to buck the system but without the intellectual knowhow to make the smart decision and without the support of her country to do so.
American Honey is sprawling and intimate, capturing a state of mind while also critiquing it. While there is modesty in Arnold’s approach, her result is rapturous and profound – one of the most consuming films of the year that sticks in your brain long after its conclusion.