American Honey earns its title more than any other that has so deigned to take that adjective.
When you call a movie “American X,” you have decided to make a larger comment on the society surrounding it, whether you choose to understand you’ve done so or not. There’s a certain weight to that decision, a certain heft to your commentary. Even the most harmless moment is uniquely and distinctly of “America,” whatever that is for you.
Andrea Arnold, the writer and director of this film, is not American. Yet she has made a decision to show us what America looks like to her, through the eyes of the underclass. This is a road movie, yet unlike many road movies, it is not a journey for one person. I mean, yeah, it is. The needs of narrative cinema demand that we have someone to hook into and American Honey has Star (Sasha Lane).
Yet, the journey is ill-defined and the goalposts few and far between. Early in the film, she makes the decision to leave the toxic family unit shoved on her by a mother who didn’t care and a father who took a different purpose for his daughter. She’s drawn along by Jake (Shia LeBeouf), a rat-tailed, slicker-n’-hell young man who is part of a troupe of traveling magazine salesfolk.
She joins them on a road trip through America, selling an ideal of themselves and what they offer (sometimes it’s to help the church, sometimes it’s a way to go off to college) to both the rich and the poor. These kids have nothing but each other and the promise of a little cash passed to them by Crystal (Riley Keough), their controlling boss.
I make it sound like there’s more narrative structure that there is, giving this thing an idea that it has a plot, a place it might go. It doesn’t, and I realized slowly over the course that I wasn’t going to see the beginning of Star’s story and I was certainly not going to be there for the end.
Arnold isn’t interested in that. Arnold wants to give us a piece, to capture in her 1.37:1 frame some idea of what America looks like for the youth below the surface. To capture the joy and the hope and the fear and the meaninglessness of the world for a group of Americans who now feel outside of society.
In some ways, American Honey is the film Malick lost sight of sometime ago. A human portrait of a sun-baked Midwest. Arnold’s characters are another part of the landscape as she drifts her camera through the world and lets it be captured for a moment. Sure, to a large degree, her images are gorgeous, the same naturalistic wonder that Malick is still capable of, without Malick’s current tendency to lose it in himself. But it’s not such a pulled back portrait.
In some ways, American Honey is a jukebox musical. Music is the lifeblood of this film, constantly pulsing in the background, rather than blaring over the top. Characters experience it on the radio and in stores. They know it and they sing along with it and it scores the moments of their lives, without them knowing it. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” may just be playing in a grocery store, but it becomes indicative of the moment that Star changed her life, and its reprise marks the same.
In some ways, American Honey is an issues picture. It’s a capture of American poverty from a foreign perspective, but without the condescension or the “Woe is them” fawning that tends to come with these stories. It’s the facts. It’s real faces showing what it means to live day to day. I’ve seen the faces before, they’re very real. Arnold understands poverty as an extension of an America that’s let people down, and gives them a chance to reclaim a future, or at least a poverty of their own making and their own design.
Is it optimistic? Not necessarily. The film suggests a certain acceptance of the way things are. But at least if they’re going to be that way, there’s some good to be done in that system.
Arnold’s also fortunate enough in her tale of the Way We Live Now to have two actors at its core who embody a certain self-reflective, devil-may-care youth. Sasha Lane, who plays Star, is brand new (this is her first film), but she already displays an extraordinary confidence with her character work. The looseness works in her favor, her natural charisma and screen presence shines.
Shia LeBeouf, is however, not so new. In all his art stunts and our parodies, we forget that LeBeouf can act, and American Honey stands to be his best performance. His chemistry with Lane is extraordinary and his ability to embody cockiness without ever allowing the nuance to leave the performance is a rare one. I know fun can be made, especially with that ridiculous rat tail, but LaBeouf is doing really complex work here, and that should be recognized.
As universal as American Honey is as a title, it won’t be a universal portrait. It’s a 3-hour slice of life about people who go nowhere and learn nothing. There’s a reason I’m a critic, not a marketeer. I can’t sell that.
I can simply state that more than any film I’ve seen in some time, American Honey understands what it feels like to be young and poor and trying to be alive. It’s gorgeous and vibrant and those who understand will feel, to quote Star, “like fucking America.”