I’m not really great with words, so I’m just going to let it all out here: Sometimes a film comes out that so perfectly encapsulates what life is like and how a generation operates in America that it can only be experienced rather than explained. American Honey is one of those films. It’s about so many things. Whether those things are intended or not is up to the viewer. Director Andrea Arnold‘s American road movie is a booze-fueled journey to nowhere, filled with heartbreak, redemption, despair, and love. More than anything, the film is borne out of an insatiable need to not only understand today’s youth, but to see things directly from their eyes. You know, the one’s dubbed “privileged” and “lazy” in a world that is seemingly against the creative force that drives so many of them. And I know, because I am one.
Star (Sasha Lane) is an 18-year-old living on the fringes of society in Oklahoma, taking care of two young kids whose junkie mom decided weren’t worth her time. That is until she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his merry band of magazine salesmen and women who travel the bible belt selling subscriptions to anyone willing to buy. All led by the dangerous and enigmatic Krystal (Riley Keough), the gang of kids fight, drink, and fuck in search of a place without persecution. No, this isn’t science fiction.
Shot in 4:3 aspect ratio as to look portrait-esque, American Honey is the result upon shooting over 100 hours of a few professional actors and a bunch of real people given ideas and no script, told to act natural. Not only does it make for a daring social experiment, but Arnold pushed these people to grow through fiction. She made real life reflect into her fiction like no one else has in quite some time, concocting a potent mixture of cinéma vérité techniques while delivering a story with no end, starting in one stage in Star’s life and ending in another.
Not mentioned in all of my above gushing is the soundtrack. I know people may be tired of hearing the “soundtrack is a character” argument, but it truly is the case here. The gang of ne’er-do-wells sing top 40 hits in the car while Arnold extends those moments into vast landscapes, sending the actions of her players into new directions just by choosing the music. There’s even a scene where “We Found Love’ by Rihanna—which has been played to death—is put to magical use when everyone is confined to a van before arriving at their next location. All of the musical moments aren’t for-show affectations or even blunt extensions of the story’s purpose. They exist, just like the characters do.
That brings me back to Arnold’s truth-in-storytelling techniques. How do you move a story to your will when you’re inviting chaos to enter it? After all, she had all of the players act natural by bonding and acting on intuition; that’s what’s so magical about American Honey. So much improvisation in a sprawling 162-minute runtime still doesn’t hamper the effect of the main narrative: Star’s life and experiences with Jake and the troupe. I know that I may be getting prophetic in ways that memes on Facebook are prophetic, but I’m serious—life’s most beautiful treasures are found when you’re not really looking. Whether it’s ants devouring a piece of food you left out or studying an insect that’s recently landed on you, some amazing things can get lost under the hustle and bustle we commit ourselves to every day. I’m not sure if that was Arnold’s intent to reproduce that truth, but I’d like to think it came natural to her.
I’d be remiss to not mention the fact that LaBeouf, Lane, Keough, and Arielle Holmes are all phenomenal as the four main professional actors used in the making. Lane is the standout in her first big role, equal parts fragile and fierce; a gorgeous and incredibly vulnerable performance.
Anyway, see this damn movie. American Honey is special in a way that few films are and it’s one of the most astute love letters and harsh criticisms towards societal pressures on youth in America today. Don’t call it a movie about American counter-culture, call it a movie about the love for that same culture, however messy and erratic it may be.