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.
The roughest part of American Honey is its opening. Star’s miserable life in Texas, dumpster-diving with her younger siblings and being sexually abused by her drunken stepfather, is a concentrated dose of unhappy (albeit plausible) stereotypes. But during a trip to a K-Mart, with Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blaring over the speakers, Star glimpses the unforgettably ridiculous sight of Shia LaBeouf, sporting a ponytail and crisp dress pants, gyrating on a checkout counter. In another film, the heroine would flee for the exit, but American Honey’s camera repeatedly sears the most bizarre sights onto the brain, turning trash into wonder.
LaBeouf plays Jake, the leader of a “mag crew” of misfits rolling from town to town with little in mind beyond having fun and making a few quick bucks. The once-wayward star invests Jake with the kind of freaky, charismatic volatility you can’t take your eyes off. A squirrelly, fun-loving hothead, Jake fuels his crew with the kind of renegade energy needed to keep up such a pointless gig. He’s paired with Krystal (Riley Keough), a laconic, frightening den mother who exists to balance out his mania. Star, who’s clearly in search of some sort of authority figure to push back against, gloms onto them immediately.
The rest of the film, which runs for 163 minutes, is essentially without plot; Arnold tries to get the viewer in Star’s immediate headspace rather than asking questions about her uncertain future. She and the mag crew bounce around to contemporary tunes, largely hip-hop and country, in their van as it streaks across America’s flailing industrial towns, snaking up from Texas to South Dakota. Star clashes with Krystal and falls for Jake, getting drawn into a romantic maelstrom that feels as foolish as it does inevitable. Meanwhile, her efforts to sell magazines lead to encounters that feel like precarious mini-adventures perpetually on the verge of turning dangerous.
Arnold and her cinematographer Robbie Ryan photograph this unfolding chaos serenely: American Honey is Spring Breakers shot through with Terrence Malick, wringing poeticism from the sight of two gummy bears stuck to a car window as scenes of dilapidation roll by. Arnold’s female gaze feels present and crucial in moments both terrifying (Star goes on a “date” with an oil-field worker who pays $1,000 for the privilege) and erotic (a romantic confrontation at a blasted, windswept farm). The film’s sex scenes, when they arrive, are arresting flurries of passion, and each one has an effect on the group’s power dynamics. Arnold wants Star’s decision-making to be aimless, but not without consequence. This is a film with an intense understanding of the environment it’s exploring; No impulsive decision goes unanswered, even if the answers are sometimes as frustrating as Star’s constantly roiling emotions.
Rather than offering a hectoring treatise on poverty in the U.S., American Honey withholds judgment at every moment. Jake has a predatory quality, and Krystal an undeniably cruel streak, but neither is fully monstrous. Star’s inherent goodness surfaces at times, but seems nonexistent at others, and the people she meets are similarly hard to read at face value. Arnold researched the film for years by traveling around the country with “Mag Crews,” and populated the film with non-professional actors she met along the way, including Lane. That deep investment in granular authenticity shines, inviting the viewer to simply get swept up in the journey, rather than sweat the details of what it means. American Honey is a long journey well worth taking, a singularly magical experience that’ll echo in the brains of its viewers for months no matter what they think of it.