A sure sign of a quality road movie is the mere feeling that by its end, the audience feels as though it’s gone on a journey of emotions and a certain level of attentive endurance that parallels the physical and geographical journey undertaken by its characters. The advance notes on American Honey will inform the viewer that its runtime is nearly three hours; in other words, be prepared for a cross country trip that will feel as though you’ve been travelling for weeks by the time the credits roll.
This is a movie that understands itself and is entirely comfortable in itself. It’s one of those films that does something to you and then indirectly tells you what it did and how and why it did it. We’re introduced early on to the group of misfit salespeople, and director Andrea Arnold understands that to gain the audience’s trust, to convince us to look forward to sitting through this long journey ahead, this first impression is crucial. What better hook to draw us in with than Rihanna’s “We Found Love”? We witness the exuberant dancing of Shia LaBeouf and his cohorts and think to ourselves, okay, I can spend the next three hours with these guys. How appropriate for a character who prides himself on nailing that opening moment with would-be customers.
Let me back up, though. American Honey follows a teenage girl named Star (Sasha Lane) as she picks up and joins on with a van full of fellow youths seemingly led by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), leaving behind two little ones in her care, who we take to be her siblings, or half-siblings. Because what the hell, right? Selling magazines or whatever it is that this crew does sounds infinitely better than diving into dumpsters to feed an abusive boyfriend and two kids that aren’t even hers. And this Jake guy is charming. What’s she got to lose?
This what-the-hell impulse will continue for Star throughout the movie, because as she proves to us time and time again, she’s quiet, but absolutely fearless. Sasha Lane gives a star performance here, embodying this boldness that comes not from confidence in her success but from a lack of fear in things turning out badly, because how could they get much worse? She possesses a recklessness that’s as worrying as it is admirable. Her relationship with Jake exemplifies this – she has no qualms about standing up to the sales team’s actual ringleader, Krystal (Riley Keough, also outstanding) even though she makes clear that the choice is her way or the literal highway.
Star is no talk, all action. Consider this in contrast to Jake, who LaBeouf plays with every bit the intensity and precision as James Franco in Spring Breakers, if not the lunacy. This is a character who preaches his simplification of the sales manual to just one point: that the first impression is the make or break of a sale. He’s selling himself, he says, not magazines (is he even selling magazines? It doesn’t seem like it). And yet, this is a guy who decides to sport a braided rat tail down the back of his head and neck as he tries to convince Protestant women that he came to them directly from church group. He’s someone who talks a big game, but goes oddly silent whenever Krystal’s around.
The movie is full of these understated character nuances, and with an ensemble like this, they come from all angles. It’s like Orange is the New Black without the staginess (probably due to the fact that most of the performers are not professional actors, let alone theater veterans). The crew has a variety of types (though, interestingly, almost exclusively white), but they share a commonality by virtue of the fact that they all left their previous lives to be a part of this new life on the road, living out of motels, going door to door to solicit strangers. The film is adept at using catchy songs and superb musical cues to demonstrate their unity. They may be from all walks of life and from one corner of America to the next, but they’re all operating on the same rhythm.
It’s a meandering story in American Honey, a movie that allows itself to wander without much of anything resembling a plot, seemingly as aimless as its characters to whom the concept of “hopes” and “dreams” are foreign. It’s a vibe that works, though, feeling truthful and genuine throughout, a winding contemplation of America as a whole by way of some of its darkest pockets.
American Honey captures youthful fearlessness and spirit in a rare way, resulting in an outstanding road movie whose destination is nowhere in particular.