“You’re pure American Honey, just like me.”
American Honey is undeniably gorgeous. It’s drenched in color; it drips with it like, yes, honey. In the center of it all is Sasha Lane as Star, just as bright (if not brighter), and impossible not to watch. Beyond that, the movie becomes much harder to define.
How one reacts to Andrea Arnold’s latest film depends largely on one’s willingness to go along for the ride. Arnold’s vision of middle America — a part of the country that’s rarely, if ever, seen on film — is presented without pontification or judgment. Maybe it’s true to the underbelly of the midwest or maybe it’s not, but that’s beside the point. The way the film is shot — mostly in loving close-up and weaving in out between the characters — makes us less audience members and more complicit in the characters’ lives, and if we’re not willing to surrender to the road trip Arnold is intent on taking us on, that honey can become tar.
There’s a plot insofar as you could scare up a blurb or two for the DVD cover: Star runs away from a broken home to join a mag crew, falling in love with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) along the way. There’s conflict, and even something of a love triangle, but typical narrative devices are accessories rather than centerpieces. We’re getting a glimpse into a girl’s life, and as with any stories in our own lives, things happen, and not always to serve a greater point. For instance, stretches of the movie take place in the van the kids use to get around the country; they sing along to the radio, joke with each other, and take in the sight of the landscape rolling by. For the most part, these sequences don’t serve any real purpose, but as anyone who’s ever taken a road trip can tell you, those mundane moments stick just as persistently in the memory as the landmarks you visit. As such, formless as they are, they may have been my favorite part of the movie. While the movie is scored entirely with trap music and top 40 hits, Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” wouldn’t have felt too out of place — “I’m young, and I love to be young/I’m free, and I love to be free.”
That said, the movie’s not afraid of diving into the lows as well as the highs of youth and freedom. The characters (and Arnold) are constantly aware of their contexts. They make money by selling magazines, though in truth, as Jake says, what they’re really selling is the chance for better-off folk to feel good about themselves. While it’s relatively benign work at first, Arnold is a master at shifting tone, letting peripheral characters and diegetic music fade away as the metaphorical storm clouds start to roll in; it’s fun tagging along with Star until, suddenly, it isn’t, as we’re made aware that while we’re along for the ride, we have no control over it. When she jumps into a car with a bunch of cowboys, telling Jake that she’s off to make money, there’s immediately a note of danger in the air. No matter how capable she may be, she’s a teenager on her own, outnumbered three to one by grown men with no clear agenda and money to burn, literally. This class awareness permeates the whole film, especially so when Star goes to work. It’s never fun to watch people get taken advantage of, and even more unsettling when they’re just kids. The people she interacts with are aware of what money means to her, and even having next to nothing puts them a rung up the ladder from having nothing at all. And it aches when, upon being asked about their dreams, the kids don’t spin tales of fame and fortune, but just of having something to call their own.
While she may not have total control over the world she lives in, there’s no doubt that the movie belongs to Star. Jake is the only other character with any significant screentime, and Shia LaBeouf acquits himself well. There’s something immediately honest and compelling in his performance, to the point that even in his very first scene, causing a ruckus in a Walmart to the tune of Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” it’s easy to see why Star falls for him so quickly. And fall, she does, the sway of her emotions tracked in the colors that cinematographer Robbie Ryan captures as well as the adolescent, sometimes petty push-pull of young love. As frustrating as following Star can be, her choices, like the singalongs in the van, are what make the movie feel true. It’s best when you surrender to the road.