When we first see Star (Sasha Lane), she's digging through a dumpster behind a grocery store, looking for salvageable food. Her family situation is vague but complicated -- she watches over two younger children, Kelsey (Summer Hunsaker) and Rubin (Brody Hunsaker), who clearly belong to another woman, Misty (Chastity Hunsaker), but her relationship with Nathan (Johnny Pierce II), the older man in the house -- either an unwanted boyfriend, or more likely, a lecherous stepfather -- is clearly unhealthy, involving molestation or even rape. Her mother is dead. They live in one of those cheaply-finished and perpetually neglected houses one finds in lower-class American neighborhoods, with plastic-like paint chipping off the walls, carpets that stink of pet stains and cigarettes, and decor leftover from the design period between the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In another movie, this kind of backstory might be more crucial, a key to "explaining" Star or her point of view as the film arrives at a dramatic climax. For filmmaker Andrea Arnold, they're simply details that add up to form her verite style. As with her 2009 film Fish Tank, American Honey is not an overall conception or idea of the experience of being a teenage girl, living on the fringes of society, but more about individual moments, simultaneously capturing how they feel as they're happening while also conveying the way in which they'll be remembered. Both movies are turbulent, energetic, and even dangerous, with fleeting moments -- a glance, a touch, a particular point of view -- leaping off the screen with incredible emotional precision.
Although Arnold has made other films, including the Emily Bronte adaptation Wuthering Heights and the CCTV thriller Red Road, Fish Tank and American Honey feel like two of a kind, about two similar young women separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Star is not as rebellious as Mia, but they are similarly captured by the rough-hewn magnetism of handsome men. In Star's case, that man is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who she first encounters singing along to Rihanna's "We Found Love", surrounded by co-workers. It turns out Jake is one of the people in charge of a "mag crew," which goes door to door all across America trying to sell magazine subscriptions. Star, tired of being responsible for children that aren't hers and attracted to Jake, leaves the kids with Misty and joins the crew. The one person above Jake (while also possibly sleeping with him) is Krystal (Riley Keough), a tough and uncompromising manager who has no patience for excuses when it comes to her crew not making money, and seems to suspect Star's attraction to Jake.
Although the film follows the ups and downs of Star's experience learning the ropes and her relationship with Jake, the development of the story only serves to further the development of Star as a character, a journey defined less by changes and more by complexity. Arnold observes as her naivete transforms into experience and understanding, her handheld camerawork hovering and shifting in and out of focus, occupying a gray area between POV and a traditional third-person perspective. It would be most accurate to say that while Arnold isn't showing us the character's actual perspective, she's capturing a more subjective idea of what the moment feels like for Star. At other times, Arnold's style feels almost documentary-like, such as when Star climbs into the cab of a truck driver and talks to him about his children as he travels to his next stop. Although the film constantly jumps back and forth between these slice-of-life segments and sequences that have a traditionally narrative feel to them, American Honey remains cohesive and real.
Although Arnold's style is distinctive and extremely striking, it's hard to imagine what the film would be had she not discovered Sasha Lane, whose debut performance carries the 162-minute movie with ease. She's incredibly vulnerable and stunningly naturalistic, and Arnold allows her free reign to be antagonistic and frustrating. Given we can see Star's attraction to Jake, one might expect her to take his first lesson in how to sell a subscription very seriously, but she cops an attitude, pushing back against practices she considers unethical. In another wonderful scene, she becomes so fed up with Jake that she abandons him for a trio of cowboys (Will Patton, Daran Shinn, and Sam Williamson), who provide her with Mezcal and challenge her to drink the worm. Given the audience has no familiarity with Lane as a performer, it's easy to forget she isn't a real person, even with more recognizable stars LaBeouf and Keough sharing the screen with her. LaBeouf acquits himself nicely in a role that makes good use of both his charisma and his attitude, balancing his charm with his anger.
Those who go into American Honey expecting a traditional narrative will likely find themselves struggling with the movie, which, like Star, is impulsive and moves forward based on instinct. It's a road trip movie in the purest sense, in which the journey is more important than the destination, and in its vibrancy and messy authenticity, one of the year's best films.
The Video and Audio
Trailers for Moonlight and 20th Century Women play before the main menu. No trailer for American Honey is included.