“What’s your dream?” asks an even-tempered cattle-truck driver to Star (Sasha Lane) as they drive down the highway. She’s surprised by this near-stranger’s charitable question and says, “Nobody’s ever asked me that before.”
There’s many moments like this in a film that seems to move from one desultory random moment to the next; arranged with radiant, tantalizing possibilities, and unsettled questions. American Honey is a rambling piece de resistance from Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road).
Shooting outside of the UK for the first time and introducing talented newcomer Sasha Lane––the camera deifies her, her many close-ups are ravishing, make no doubt aboutit, this is a breakthrough performance––who’s an unfettered 18-year-old, she’s dumpster diving for dinner with her two small half-siblings when we first meet her in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Her abusive POS father won’t keep his paws off of her so when she’s offered work from a mysterious young man named Jake (Shia LeBeouf), whom she had a chance meeting with, she’s soon sneaking out of her unkempt home to meet him.
And thus begins Arnold’s Prix du Jury winning road movie, a coming-of-age odyssey of singalongs that’s luxurious to look at and dazzling to contemplate. And like Arnold’s best work, which American Honey now ranks amongst, there’s refreshingly no moralizing or contrived civility.
Joining with Jake, Star hits the road with other teens; a tattooed and glitter-bombed crew who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door as they zigzag across America. It’s Krystal (Riley Keough), and not Jake, who leads the crew, as their take-charge manager, and the only person who seems to know where the next day might take them. As the crew becomes something of a stopgap family for Star, all youthful romantics like her, American Honey casts its seductive and hypnotic hocus-pocus.
Using a cast of mostly non-actors––Arnold chose the “street cast” teens at places where teens hang out; beaches, parking lots, streets––and the naturalistic performances they give are terrific. Also terrific is the lustrous clarity and color captured by cinematographer Robbie Ryan (he’s collaborated with Arnold on all of her films to date) whose work here is so seductive he must be a black magician.
From wealthy pious families in luxurious homes to dirt poor families in public squalor, Star learns about sales techniques and even some life lessons from Jake. It’s not all hearts and bows, though, far from it, and one sequence in Texas at a barbeque (featuring a cameo from Will Patton) gets a pretty hair-raising. But not once is anything on screen less than compelling.
When we first meet Jake––and LeBeouf is great in this role––he seems to move with an unpredictable and meteoric energy, like he could just leave the scene or even exit the movie altogether on a whim, if he wanted. And by the end, this meteoric energy has moved on to Star in some sort of cinematic transmigration. And that’s American Honey; a narratively audacious, picaresque pageant of youth, exhilarative spectacle and aspiration.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.