At over two and half a hours in length and with a narrative that feels like a roadmap scribbled on the back of a gas station receipt, Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” feels as long and aimless as the journey undertaken by its eighteen year old main character, Star (Sasha Lane). It’s not a journey to nowhere, but neither is it a journey with a true ending point, mirroring the Let’s See Where This Goes fecklessness of youth. And while Star becomes intertwined with a small community of sorts, “American Honey” consistently remains a story told from her point of view, relayed by a camera affixed to her throughout, and usually in Arnold’s preferred narrow frames, where the landscape, beautiful thought it may occasionally be, is frequently shunted aside to keep us in Star’s headspace.
This leaves Lane, a first time actor, to do a lot of lifting, and she is and is not up to the challenge. In moments where she is tasked with being appalled at where the road takes her, like a swanky McMansion where a Christian with a seemingly secular daughter is meant to instill outrage, Lane comes across more annoyed than outraged. No, Lane is better in moments of reckless courage, or wide-eyed eagerness which is rendered in how she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who spies Star at a K-Mart and essentially says “come hither” with a dance party to the Calvin Harris/Rhianna electro-hoedown “We Found Love” when it appears on the store’s speakers, a sequence erased of its inherent cheese by the forceful earnestness. LaBeouf has always had a lunatic energy, on screen and off, and Arnold mostly harnesses it for good rather than evil.
Jake is part of a roving crew of youthful misfits that traverse the country, hustling door to door, selling magazines. And so Star, established as taking care of two kids who are not hers and dumpster diving on behalf of some gross, lecherous dude she lives with and calls “Daddy”, walks out on this seemingly dreary life to look for America, or thereabouts. In that search, Arnold tries to cram in some sort of commentary on this country’s economic crisis, and while too often it plays more like a veneer than subtext, you do feel where the middle class has just sort of dissolved into the ether between the affluent and the downtrodden. It’s everything or nothing and this good-time gang is willing to shill Popular Mechanics for something.
Most of what I have read about magazine crews has made it sound like deplorable, dehumanizing work. That sensation is occasionally glimpsed in “American Honey” via the crew’s ferocious, trashy chief Krystal (Riley Keough, ferocious) who talks of leaving former crew members in the desert with no food or water. We never see anything like this play out, though, and all her young, seemingly uneducated crew members generally come across oblivious to anything other than the moment. They pile into their jalopy, gleefully passing liquor bottles and joints back and forth, like itinerant hobos of the 1930s on the freeways instead of the rails. Arnold never really displays must interest in the individual personalities of these kids, preferring to let the rap songs constantly blaring from their shabby vehicle’s speakers speak for them in unison. “I’m stuck to this bread / Everybody got choices.” (Confession: I did not believe for one minute most of these kids would in any way like the Lady Antebellum track the movie takes for its title.)
In another movie, the “bread” might have been paramount. It might have focused heavily on the process of the magazine pitch, but Arnold almost completely dispenses with it after the first couple doors are opened. “American Honey” sticks closer to the road and its rites as Star initiates a messy process of figuring out who she is. That seems the purpose of her and Jake’s semi-relationship, one built almost exclusively on carnal lust, given how little she thinks of Jake’s ethics the more she gets to know him, not that this fails to feel true. She is an eighteen year old girl going on woman getting in touch with her body and her desires, and that is why Arnold’s decision to sort of transform this into a love triangle with Jake also existing as the boy toy of Krystal feels like a disappointing concession to normal narrative rules that never quite works.
Star doesn’t necessarily seem all that bothered by Krystal’s threats and she doesn’t come across all that connected to her group in the end. If anything, some of her decisions indicate a desire to cut loose of the group and strike out on her own, like when she hops in the backseat of a convertible hauling three Texans. The latter might be the film’s best passage. If the three men teeter on the brink of ten-gallon hat sporting cliché, something very tangible still gets carved out as they take her back to their fortress posing as a home and feed her beer and liquor even as they promise to buy magazines. Real possible menace hangs in the air, but it is never exploitative, because Lane lets us feel Star getting lost in the control she suddenly feels herself wielding. Her naivety puts you on edge even if you can’t help but admire her confidence.
If another passage later when she hops a ride with a trucker feels less substantial, and ends abruptly without addressing how Star re-connects with her crew, it is merely “American Honey’s” law of averages. It is Star’s law of averages too. If some moments never lift off, other moments soar, which meant I didn’t like the movie and I did, which is a compliment, mostly.