Star (Sasha Lane), the effervescent, snarling, teenaged heroine of American Honey, is aptly named. A total unknown discovered while partying on spring break, Lane gives a brilliant performance that grounds this cinematic odyssey worth every minute of its nearly three-hour running time. A bold, often abrasive statement about life on the fringes of society in the parts of the country still ravaged by recession, American Honey could have been patronizing or reductive. Instead, thanks to Lane’s natural magnetism and the director Andrea Arnold’s remarkable empathy for her subjects, it’s required viewing.
Arnold is a British director who excels at uncompromising storytelling. Her protagonist Star has something in common with Mia, the isolated, impoverished teenager in her 2009 film Fish Tank, and even with the aloof, angry Heathcliff of her 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. But one of Arnold’s biggest achievements with American Honey is how effortlessly she leapfrogs across the pond; her emphasis on naturalism and quirky detail, rather than overly knotty plotting, gives American Honey the slice-of-life feeling it sorely needs to work. As Star is swept up by a crew of drifters and runaways, tearing around America’s South and Midwest in a white van trying to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door, the ultimate success or failure of her new venture seems beside the point. Arnold dunks the viewer’s head into the gnarly, frightening soup of Star’s life, but still manages to inspire nothing short of exhilaration.