REVIEW: American Honey [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 163 minutes | Release Date: September 30th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: A24
Director(s): Andrea Arnold
Writer(s): Andrea Arnold

“What about you? What’s your dream?”

Welcome to our disenfranchised youth. That’s exactly what Andrea Arnold puts front and center with her latest film American Honey: miscreants getting high, road tripping, and lying their way to a few bucks meant to continue the nomadic journey’s unending party. Led by outside-the-box entrepreneur Krystal (Riley Keough), this ragtag bunch of urchins scooped from the side of the road go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions—or as her number one seller Jake (Shia LaBeouf) says, “… themselves.” We don’t know if their customers will ever see the year’s worth of Boating Magazine paid for, but it’d be surprising to discover those forking over the cash expect their money to be anything more than a donation that ensures the youthful stranger on their porch disappears as quickly as possible.

These kids are Krystal’s bank: employees earning twenty percent of every dollar accrued with the rest going into her pocket to pay for cheap motels and the revolving wardrobe strewn about her room. They make up stories about hard lives and dead parents to achieve sympathy from the affluent suckers whose doorbells they ring despite each more than likely being a bored kid with a home to return to if they were so inclined. They fight each other for fun to let off steam, stop what they’re doing to dance whenever Rihanna blasts through a speaker, and hold everything Krystal says as gospel. It’s a game to them, a ruse capitalizing on the suffering of others to feed one woman’s greed and their own juvenile escapade of excess.

So what happens when someone who has lived the life they pretend to lead for an extra thirty bucks joins the team? Here enters Star (Sasha Lane), a vision of beauty that catches Jake’s eye as he stocks up on food during a layover where she lives. He sees her as being alone, interested in him, and possibly willing to uproot and join the circus. What he can’t notice, however, is the reality behind the curtain: the fact that she lives with a rapist and his two young children because their mother refuses to care for them. The fridge is only full when a dumpster dive proves fruitful and happiness is all but erased for an existence of abuse or eventual death from meth just like her mother.

Star is who we follow from dumpster to Kansas and beyond. She joins this group for a love inconsistently reciprocated and survival from a bleak future destiny had begun writing. So she doesn’t owe anyone anything, least of all Krystal. She’ll go through the motions to get closer to Jake, put herself in compromising positions to accelerate what she believes is escape for them both, and ultimately reveal the American Dream to be little more than a distant glimmer of hope with enough power to push you forward yet never attain. This is the life of runaways leaching off those deluded by wealth and/or religion, targeting the guilt of the middle class and richer to share their loose change without wielding the maturity or responsibility to earn it.

If you think there isn’t much here to fill 163-minutes you aren’t wrong. It should be a boring slog of monotony as kids have fun, sing in a van, and knock on doors. But Arnold makes it into the exact opposite. American Honey passes by at an accelerated clip with hardly any excess or true repetition. Things escalate for added drama so we can watch Star’s discomfort in how Jake operates on the sales floor, her authenticity’s success when branching out on her own without artifice, and the slippery slope her eighteen years have helped build via tragedy, poverty, and a desire for more. Yet even as she evolves (or devolves depending on your perspective), she never forgets who she is or the strength possessed to do so.

A lot of this is due to Lane: a girl on spring break who auditioned and won a leading role. She is every bit as raw and unique as the characters Arnold surrounds her with, themselves unsuspectingly plucked from the streets on a cross-country scouting trip through our country’s more dire corners of drunken and lewd existences. Their flair for life and excitement towards the unknown is paramount because it gives the by-the-seat-of-your-pants atmosphere the fun and drama it deserves. The way they universally start rapping to the music on the radio while passing bottles and blunts is invigorating and inspiring. We could pity the uncertainty of their situation and the legality of their jobs, but at the end of the day we must also envy their freedom.

Arnold lets them run wild—or so I assume considering the footage appears pretty improvisational. Besides Pagan’s (Arielle Holmes) oddball Darth Vader worshipper, everyone simply goes with the flow. Keough and LaBeouf are therefore perfect additions as legitimate actors because they have the capacity to fit in while also providing Lane the cues on which she must react. The former’s Krystal is her true opposition as a queen bee demanding results and possibly false opposition as a competing love interest for Jake. He on-the-other-hand is Star’s motivation both to remain involved in the endeavor and her refusal to change her code. Their interactions never fail to impress emotionally or physically with communicative and realistic sex scenes that aren’t highly sexualized and arguments full of wit, pain, and suspicion.

The scenarios Star is thrown into vary from flirtatious twelve year olds and oblivious mothers to seemingly up-and-up cowboys (led by Will Patton as one of the other familiar faces on the massive cast list) drinking tequila by the pool to oil workers unwilling to part with their hard-earned cash unless sexual favors are included with the magazines. For the most part Arnold gives her lead surprisingly “safe” versions of situations that we’ve seen go very wrong very often. I’ll admit my trepidation throughout a brief truck ride with a prospective customer because society has breed us to be fearful lemmings believing the worst in people rather than the best. He ends up being this sweetly proud father of a newlywed daughter and suddenly everything else seems brighter.

The same goes for Star’s interactions with people outside of the group. We wonder how she’ll handle the affluence of those showing kindness and a return to the squalor she left behind despite knowing her half siblings (?) weren’t able. Everything she endures comments on her past and she reacts accordingly because she knows what it’s like. Krystal and the rest can pretend all they want, but Star lived each lie they create without it being a choice. Arnold injects jealousy, vanity, betrayal, comedy, and anarchy all to watch them rise and fall while those impacted simply bounce back as though impervious to the hate and hardship. Maybe America isn’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe and those disenfranchised youths not as helpless. The landscape is forever changing.

[1] “American Honey” – Sasha Lane
[2] “American Honey” – McCaul Lombardi, Riley Keough, Verronikah Ezell, Shia LaBeouf, Crystal B. Ice, Shawna Rae Moseley, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Raymond Coalson
[3] “American Honey” – Riley Keough and Shia LaBeouf

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