AMERICAN HONEY (2016, directed by Andrea Arnold, 163 minutes, U.K./U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Writer/director Andrea (Fish Tank) Arnold’s perspective is apparent from the first frame of her immersive youth epic American Honey. Being a British director shooting in the U.S. for the first time, you might imagine that Arnold’s instinct would be to use the widescreen frame to capture those endless horizons of the American Midwest. But no, Arnold uses an unusually boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio to tell her story, a story of young characters enjoying a rambling freedom but not necessarily endless possibilities.
The film laces us into the sneakers of Star (played by first-timer Sasha Lane) as she leaves her rapey, oppressive, working class family and their dead end town and joins a transient “mag crew.” With about twenty others she spends the day riding in crowded vans from town to town, working in pairs to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door. This could be seen as a dead end shady job yet compared with what she’s leaving behind (exemplified by her mother’s stone-faced country line dancing in a dive bar) this adventure seems unmissable. So Star gets on the van to find out if the land still oozes milk and honey and we go with her as she finds money, romance and a bit on danger in this ragged land of ours.
I can imagine someone the same age as the teens and twenty-somethings that populate this world jumping to join the first mag crew to come to town after seeing this film. Not that the tribe and the world Arnold explores are overly-romanticized. They live crowded into cheap hotels and travel smashed into Econoline vans all funded by their semi-con salesmanship, trying to drum up subscribers on people’s front steps with invented tales of woe. There’s also brutal fistfights staged for the member with the lowest monthly numbers. While the film hints at the violence and drudgery but also portrays the thrill in talking people out of their hard-earned cash and in doing so, achieving elevated status among the peers in your crew.
What American Honey ultimately evokes most vividly is the euphoria of youth, making all the first-time discoveries of love, sex, singing in groups, dancing, fighting and figuring out who you are and where you stand in the world For Star this involves a slow-building romance with top salesman Jake (a rat-tailed and eyebrow-pierced Shia LaBeouf) who is something like a sex slave for the group’s queen bee and organizer Krystal (played by Riley Keough, who evokes the same sort of sleepy-eye surliness her grandfather displayed in Jailhouse Rock). Their romance could have them thrust from their little society (there’s a “no romance” rule among the guidelines) but Arnold makes you feel the irresistible pull between Star and Jake.
This relationship triangle may hold a skeleton of a plot together but the overwhelming sensation left by the film is dreamy hyper-real sense of being amongst this crowd of mostly good-spirited young folk, free of cares and connections. Being basically homeless with no future visible beyond tomorrow is a burden they seem to carry but at their age they aren’t overloaded. As a comment on life in the U.S. today, the film unconsciously seems to evoke a bit of the optimism that this generation brought to the Bernie Sanders campaign earlier in the year. I feel like most male directors would not be able to end this film without some violent confrontation but Arnold leaves her characters little better off but still intact. The future might look bleak but American Honey lets you hang unobtrusively with a generation that isn’t too cynical for hope.