We’re in a dumpster. It’s hot. The sun is beating on the back of our neck. We’re digging for something, anything, we can eat. Outside the trash receptacle, two small children expectantly wait. It’s our job to find them food. If we don’t, it’s just going to be another Oklahoma evening punctuated by the sound of rumbling bellies as we keep one eye trained on the door, hoping our groping stepfather doesn’t come creeping in, beer-stained breath and a Randy Travis tune doubling as his bumpkin molester entrance music. This is the life we live. We didn’t choose it, and know there’s got to be something better out there than this.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is an utterly immersive cinematic journey, placing us inside her 1.37:1 frame and allowing us to experience everything its wayward lead, Star (Sasha Lane), feels almost in real time. We’re dropped in like undetected spies on her existence as she attempts to keep her dilapidated home standing upright while any semblance of adult supervision is out at a dingy dive, getting plastered and line-dancing the night away. It’s a portrait of American poverty that never feels leeringly exploitive or condescending, but rather succinctly matter of fact. This is how growing in the Heartland is for the lower class, but Star isn’t going to let her situation stop her from exploring the rest of the country’s vast ocean of opportunity.
Star’s chance to leave her seemingly hopeless life behind comes in the form of a white conversion van filled with teens just like her, certain inner lights dimmed via respective hardships. Hopping out of their beat up chariot to buy provisions and gyrate on the counters to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” at the local K-Mart, they’re reckless and wild, indulging in this musical whim before security is called to toss their asses out on the blacktop. All the while, Star and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) – the rat-tailed, well-muscled leader who looks like Satan’s suspendered Bible salesman – kick off a ballet of their own, making eyes at one another under the fluorescent lights of this hick depot. In the parking lot, he asks her to come along with them – a traveling sales group hocking magazines who meanders from town to town. It takes only a faux Hero’s Journey instance of rejection before Star is dropping the two tykes she cares for off with their true guardians and heading out on the road, her eyes trained on the horizon as trap rap blares from the vehicle’s blown out speakers.
There’s an incredible magic to Sasha Lane, who shoulders the gargantuan task of having to appear in every single one of American Honey’s discordant, ad-libbed scenes. A first time performer whom Arnold discovered at a Spring Break party in Panama City, Florida, Lane brings natural disharmony to every moment. Working without a script and bouncing off the other performers’ impulses, there’s a sense of spontaneity to her performance that completely blocked scenes wouldn’t allow. This freedom for movement and expression within Arnold’s boxy frame emphasizes what kind of journey Star is taking - not just one of escape from the oppression of poverty in Small Town, USA, but also a trek toward unification with her own soul and the spirits of others who accept her as she is, without question. At the heart of clichéd “American Values” lies the concept of family, and Star is looking to build her own in place of the toxic unit she was born into. Lane’s sense of discovery and perpetual forward motion to uncover further facets of her personality she may not have known existed in the first place is mesmerizing.
With all of his art shtick buffoonery – wearing paper bags over his face, riding fucking elevators incessantly and inviting us to watch his own movies for hours on end with him – it’s now much easier to ridicule Shia LaBeouf than actually evaluate his performances objectively. However, the truth remains that LaBeouf is an astoundingly gifted performer when he’s completely engaged with the project. American Honey features what is easily the actor’s best performance, as he and Lane generate an almost supernatural level of chemistry, unable to live without each other one moment before becoming completely enraged over the smallest injustice the next. LaBeouf embraces the manipulative side of this grimy lothario, promising Star “presents” in the form of junk trinkets in order to keep her constantly interested in him. When they fuck, there’s a raw physicality to the scenes that’s nearly pornographic, hot flesh slapping under a baking Southern sun. But Jake’s also an insanely jealous type, flying off the handle the moment Star potentially sets her eyes on anyone besides him. It’s a portrait of sweaty infatuation where a domineering man has finally met a woman who won’t be broken by his tried and true control tricks, and it drives him crazy just as easily as it lights his loins on fire. LaBeouf is amazing, to the extent that it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing his role this well.
Star and Jake’s fixation phase takes place inside of an odd bubble that doubles as a metaphor for the American ideal of capitalism. The kids essentially sell fake magazines door to door in both poor and affluent neighborhoods, utilizing fictional stories that range from college scholarship contests to being destitute after their parents passed from cancer. These products are never going to arrive once the cash is collected from the buyers, and they kick a hefty cut up to a ruthless manager (Riley Keough), who threatens to kick them out of the van if their sales fail to live up to expectations. So while this trip is undoubtedly a youthful flight of fancy, picking up and going when there’s nothing left in their hometowns, these dimmed lights are still employees, required to help pay for their shoddy motel rooms and gas for the big white beast they ride in. A routine ritual of making the two lowest sales fight in a crude pit by a bonfire only further emphasizes how ruthless this economic system they’ve bought into really is. In the end, the poor are still tearing each other apart for the enjoyment of the top earners, only to pick themselves up out of the dirt and try to sell more for their corporate masters tomorrow.
There’s a non-traditional musical element to American Honey that keeps us constantly in the moment with these kids, even as they’re nodding off in the van between towns. The soundtrack to Arnold’s movie isn’t so much a set of perfectly curated tunes as it is a collection of clips, yanked from the sonic ether and delivered straight to our brains. We’re experiencing music in American Honey the same way we do in day-to-day life, from overhead speakers in grocery stores, the windows of passing cars, and the stereos of vehicles we’ve decided to hitch a ride in. Some of these tracks grab our attention and demand a sing-along (such as one glorious flash where the kids collectively croon to Lady Antebellum’s eponymous cut), while others drift in and out of our consciousness, providing elevator jams for our private thoughts. It’s a deft way to manage audience involvement in these instances that feels fresh, as Arnold flexes her filmic muscles in ways we may not even realize as it occurs.
There’s darkness to American Honey, especially once Star is forced to confront the lecherous sexuality of men as the picture progresses. There’s also a looming threat of violence that hangs over every scene, like a storm cloud waiting to burst. These kids are shacking up in seedy holes, fucking one another before falling asleep, rarely wary of the outside forces (such as the law or potential thieves) who could come crashing in at night. Nevertheless, there’s a beauty to both Star and her cohorts’ oblivious, endless summer attitude. Arnold’s view of these wandering youths is one of relentless optimism. “I feel like fucking America,” Star hollers as she and Jake speed away from an impromptu holdup at a Texas businessmen’s BBQ. This statement could stand as both the motivation behind Star’s actions and the thesis of Arnold’s shaggy, nearly three-hour road trip to the fringes of a national reverie. Her frame may be constricting or comforting, depending on the shot selection. But beyond those black bars is a bastion of prospects for Star to take her revenge on a country whose economy threatened to restrict her dreams. As a tribal chant hums “I am your savior” during these Lord of the Flies’ final fire dance, we fade to black knowing that salvation can only be achieved through the shattering of other’s perceptions of what we can achieve and where we can explore.