American Honey delivers a compelling story with action, comedy and drama about teenage rebellion during a competitive film season. The movie comes alive with its colors, characters and elegant, goofy execution — and above all, in its leading star Sasha Lane.
In 2015, Lane was spending her spring break in Panama Beach when she was discovered by director Andrea Arnold. An 18-year-old with no prior acting experience, Lane was cast on the spot. The result is a genuine lead performance. Her character, Star, is introduced rummaging through some Midwestern dumpster, grabbing dinner for herself and the children under her care. Arnold’s approach here — in the opening shots of a 162-minute marvel — is minimally explained, with no context as to the children’s care or the disadvantages that have led to their forced bond but extremely telling. Star is continually moving ahead, while her thoughts are clearly anywhere but her home.
In a Wal-Mart parking lot, Star finds Jake, portrayed by Shia LaBeouf, alongside his massive troupe of outcasts, stoners and weirdos belonging to a tightly-run “mag crew.” These “crews,” inspired by real-life The New York Times reporting, are a boozed-out pyramid scheme on wheels, driving door-to-door through flyover country, selling off magazine subscriptions and moving to the next town. Star leaves with the group for Kansas City without a thought, and the movie takes that massive leap as almost a credo, a code of reference. Everything that happens in American Honey feels improvised — the only thing more remarkable is that it actually was.
Writer-director Arnold — famed for 2009’s similarly raw, Oscar-winning short film Fish Tank — is obsessed with improvised interactions between young people on society’s fringes and achieved this by actually making up her films on a week-by-week basis. Arnold’s actors, though largely non-professional, seem to be as energized by discovering themselves as we are to discover them, which plays unbelievably well off of the absurdly famous LaBeouf’s pack leader. The actor’s wild-card reputation, while irritatingly well-documented by now, has imbued his movies with a near-animalistic energy for a few years now, and it would seem to have a newer sophistication in American Honey.
The push-and-pull between Star and Jake — playing out in agonizingly patient timing, in some of the most beautifully amber-tinted images of the year — is quirky, achingly romantic and troubling in equal measure. It’s a star-crossed romance filmed in a local backyard. The sense of location is stunning: marrying its loose-leaf story to extremely focused, telling portraits of the smallest details — the way a sunset looks in Kansas City, flies circling around trailers, Monster cans laying around Dakota motels. This is not a movie concerned with message or morals. It’s much too busy building its youthful energy in real-time, with Star’s path to some odd sense of adulthood landing the movie the gorgeous conclusion.
Watching American Honey is like going on the most meaningful, dream-like road-trip with the craziest friend. Even better, it is the rarest and most elusive breed of movie, one that seems to operate on every one of the senses in ways no one understands. It’s perfect, rare and totally American.