UK Release Date: 14th October 2016
Runtime: 164 minutes
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writer: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Crystal B Ice, Chad McKenzie Cox
Synopsis: A young woman finds new purpose in her dead-end life when she begins travelling with a crew of misfits selling magazine subscriptions door to door across America.
There aren’t all that many films that can take a near-three-hour running time and a threadbare plot and make it all work. Thankfully, American Honey is in the hands of the incredibly exciting filmmaker Andrea Arnold. With the strains of country music and stark landscapes provoking the consistent tone of authentic Americana, this is a film that might not thrill with plot twists and turns, but it paints an evocative and multi-layered portrait of youth in the 21st century.
Star (Sasha Lane) spends her life hunting for unopened food in the trash, caring for two children who aren’t hers and trapped in an abusive relationship. On a trip to the supermarket, she encounters an exuberant group of youngsters seemingly led by Jake (Shia LaBeouf). After Star catches Jake’s eye, he offers her the chance to join a ‘mag crew’ he is part of, run by Krystal (Riley Keough), flogging magazine subscriptions door to door and spending life on the road.
From the moment it starts, American Honey sets out its stall as an attempt to cast a spell over the audience. Arnold’s America is a world of country music sing-a-longs, including the Lady Antebellum title track, and baking sunshine that beats down on the characters from the uppermost heights of the atypical 4:3 Academy ratio frame. The greatest achievement of American Honey is that it depicts a world that is completely alien to us in the UK with such richness that it feels intimately familiar, even as characters make baffling choices in a depiction of millennial youth entirely oblivious to, or unmoved by, the notion that actions have consequences.
The film’s plot unfolds with an easygoing, relaxed sense of momentum. It’s not an uneventful film, but it’s one that is more interested by the interplay of these youngsters and the unique world in which they live than it is by huge incidents. The plot pivots and twirls around Sasha Lane’s charismatic lead performance. Discovered by Arnold among partygoers on a beach, Lane is a truly remarkable discovery, conveying firecracker spirit and a plausible sense of a desperate woman experiencing a whole new kind of existence. The film is also the perfect venue for Shia LaBeouf’s very particular kind of raw, unchained charisma, even as he is frequently upstaged by his own rat-tail hairdo.
Each of the characters in American Honey has their own distinct character and are well-drawn by Arnold’s script. Lane and LaBeouf are the stars, but Riley Keough also gets a very meaty role as the brutally harsh boss of the mag crew. She intimidates Star with her sexuality as much as her words, making it clear what the pecking order is within the group. Star’s never left in any doubt that Krystal is the queen of this particular kingdom. Despite this, the big confrontations and narrative events just don’t happen – as much as there’s a rising sense that something truly awful is on the verge of taking place.
Arnold’s film is a deeply emotional, visually breath-taking journey through true Americana, enhanced by the tremendous soundtrack, which mixes country, pop and hip-hop to paint clearly the world inhabited by these central performers, who appear to be every inch their characters. In a financially precarious and difficult time all over the world, this tale of young people scraping by day-to-day can resonate with all of us, even if the world itself feels utterly unusual, buried deep in the heart of America.
Pop or Poop?
Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature as writer-director, American Honey, is a wryly observed journey into an entirely anachronistic, analogue world set in the heart of modern America. Country music gives the film real moments of fist-pumping joy, while the emotional conflict resonates. It might be a touch too long, but it certainly leaves an impact for longer than the sum of its parts.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.