Directed by Andrea Arnold
Opens September 30
The road movie that meanders through Middle America—in which lonely characters crisscross various state lines on an aimless and vaguely outlaw journey of self-reinvention—has long been a special province of foreign directors, namely those keen on workshopping a more explicitly global mode of address. In this arena, the follies (Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights) happen to outnumber the successes (Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas)—not that that seems to have dissuaded the Kentish filmmaker Andrea Arnold from really swinging for the fences with her fourth feature, her first set in these motley United States.
With American Honey, the 51-year-old former actress—who has in the celebrated Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011) developed a highly immersive form of social realism—turns in what is almost certainly the most full-throated and shambolic work of its outsider-perspective micro-genre. The booming, exhausting coming-of-age love story, which a few months ago picked up the jury prize at Cannes, tags along with a band of teenage traveling salespeople who peddle magazine subscriptions door to door—exploitative labor they’ve nonetheless turned into a kind of floating-opera party, the itinerancy providing, as it does, a temporary refuge from Dickensian-ragamuffin youths of meth-fueled abuse and neglect. (Writer-director Arnold was inspired by a 2007 New York Times exposé about such “mag crews.”)
The audience gets acquainted with the ins and outs of this on-the-margins outfit alongside the dreadlocked, shoulder-tattooed protagonist Star, played by ballyhooed newcomer Sasha Lane, an 18-year-old Texan whom Arnold spotted on spring break in Florida. To escape her life of dumpster-diving and getting groped at home, Star accepts the migrant gig offered to her, on what seems like a whim, by the rat-tailed Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a sort of bad-boy camp counselor whom she first observes entering a K-Mart to buy a lint roller—and then getting thrown out for leading his raucous charges in a flash-mob dance party. But it is Jake himself—whose personal style, part hobo Mormon missionary and part gangster capitalist (early on, he touts his “Donald Trumpish” pants), consistently seems one of the most fussed-over things on-screen—that she’s really after.
Shot, by longtime Arnold collaborator Robbie Ryan, in a 4:3 aspect ratio that somehow makes it feel as if you’re peering directly through the viewfinder yourself, American Honey soon piles the viewer into the van of drinking, smoking sales associates—all of whom are lily white, save for the mixed-race Star (Arnold, however, declines to show the commonplace white-trash prejudice). As they barrel down the interstate, subsisting on gas-station grub between overnight stops at dingy motels, the teens entertain themselves by singing along exuberantly to whatever’s blasting through the speakers—these musical numbers, which include a lot of hip-hop and the Lady Antebellum pop-country anthem after which the film is titled, take up an almost ungodly portion of this 162-minute film.
This is, in a sense, the youth-group trip that none of them ever got to take, though one that has no place whatsoever for the Holy Father. “God’s a cunt,” Star says at one point. Instead, these underprivileged millennials are disciples of the dollar, the Billboard Hot 100, and, in one instance, Darth Vader (the only recognizable face among the junior employees, Heaven Knows What lead Arielle Holmes, appears as a zonked-out young woman who practically worships the Stars Wars character). They have no use for any kind of gospel—it’s not long before even the sales guidelines laid out in the company’s “welcome packet” go by the wayside. As Krystal (The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough), the self-made boss lady who has Jake under her thumb, assigns him to show Star the ropes, the new girl learns that only lying and hustling will get customers to buy something they can’t possibly want, at least at this point in the digital age: print publications delivered right to their doorstep.
The business decision to partner Star and Jake winds up being, in the end, a disaster for sales. Instead of pounding the pavement in some of the heartland’s more well-to-do exurbs, the two can’t keep their hands off each other, rolling in the grass and riding around in a stolen convertible and meanwhile trying to keep the whole thing a secret from the larger group. Lane and LaBeouf (who last year began a real-life, tabloid-documented affair of their own) have a combustible love-hate chemistry that works to the film’s advantage—the middle stretches are more interesting when they’re stealing away from their colleagues. Warning the couple all the while, though, is the equivalent of a disapproving parent: Always partial to the power move, the all-seeing Krystal, whose provocative outfits include a Confederate Flag bikini (with the price tag still on, no less!), toys with Jake and Star seemingly for sport.
As both outlaw romance and band-of-outsiders revel, American Honey proudly flouts such core narrative-film values as discipline and direction—if you never quite know where it is going, well, that is because it has no idea itself. The audacity of the thing is estimable, but as a viewing experience it is, in due course, highly taxing. At least the movie never resorts to the type of suffocating miserablism that often attends conditions as squalid and behavior as sordid as what’s shown on-screen here. These kids—who have, for both better and worse, been conscripted into a tightly cohesive unit—are scrounging and stealing and singing themselves toward a less uncertain future, even if they can’t really see past tomorrow. As stranger-in-a-strange-land Arnold goes to show, the American dream might be more of a fantasy than ever, but it ain’t dead yet.