American Honey, from writer and director Andrea Arnold, does something startling: like my favorite road-trip movie, Little Miss Sunshine, American Honey rolls out a vision of many different, ordinary Americas. But American Honey stays closely bound to its intriguing and unpredictable protagonist, a young black woman who suddenly finds herself with a new world at her fingertips, and she gives the movie its undeniable spark.
American Honey follows Star (Sasha Lane, electric in her debut role), an eighteen-year-old Texan who has nothing to lose. She’s has been saddled with the role of mother and father to her two younger siblings, and her life is bare, impoverished, and determined. We first see her dumpster diving for heat-soggy chicken, with her two young charges, coaching the younger of the two how to catch the heavy, whole chicken she salvages and tosses down to him, complete in its plastic wrapping. En route home, a rowdy van full of teens and twenty-somethings wheels crookedly past Star and her siblings, into a shopping mall plaza, and Star, fascinated, follows into the super-store after them.
It’s difficult to say whether she’s more enamored of the wild, unencumbered freedom of the young band—who break out into a screaming singalong to Rihanna on the store’s sound system—or of Jake (Shia LaBeouf), an older, showy, but endearing misfit figurehead. Within minutes he offers Star a job to sell magazines with the troop, which propels the plot forward across the Midwest along with the white van full of rootless teens. The band is led by a fierce and unabashedly sexual queenpin, Krystal (Riley Keough), whose complicated and emasculating relationship with Jake brings her and Star into what could be called romantic competition, or perhaps, more accurately, a power struggle.
It’s the kind of indie road-trip premise that one fully expects to transform into an unwatchable formula film, rife with sightseeing and sex. The saving grace and centerpiece of American Honey is Sasha Lane and the sheer, vicious grace she brings to the screen. It isn’t often such a long movie can survive through the exclusive, tight POV of one character, but in American Honey, it works. Lane brings to the screen a character who astonishes us scene after scene. She is daring beyond all reason, buoyant, and confident: she makes a habit of jumping in cars and trucks with potential magazine clients, and she remains fiercely unapologetic for her decisions. Sasha Lane, in her debut film role, is a gem: she more often than not stands as the focus of the insistent and inquisitive camera, with the weight of the film’s loosely plotted arc resting on her shoulders. Through Star’s eyes, we see class and sex and danger in a poignantly bold way, with pride and curiosity, rather than with shame.
American Honey does a lot with its vision of class: we see wealthy green-lawned suburbs, dusty truck stops, limpid lower-income neighborhoods, all through the tight POV of its lower class narrator. Krystal, coaching her sales team before letting them loose into the wealthiest neighborhoods, has the young salespeople dress in raggedy clothes. People around here have a lot of money, she tells them loudly, so how does that make them feel? Great! the team mumbles back. No, says Krystal, it makes them feel guilty. So go play on that.
Going door to door, Star watches Jake perform a chameleon act: he plays the underpriveledged college kid to the wealthy suburban housewife, the young man looking to better himself to the middle-class neighborhood. You’ve got to become what they want to see, he tells Star early on in her training. This uncomfortably explicit class performance doesn’t exactly make audiences squirm, but it does set teeth on edge, as these scenes play themselves out with Star as the fiercely dignified lens. Jake’s class-chameleon act is something Star staunchly refuses to play along with, blowing sale after sale. She is, determinedly and unashamedly, herself. She hates the lie of it, that it is seemingly inappropriate to simply be poor and looking to make a few dollars.
Her dynamic with LeBeof’s character is certainly nontraditional in the realm of romance plots. The film’s scenario would be completely recognizable—and much more trite—if the genders of the characters were flipped. Young man escapes impoverished hometown on a whirlwind road trip across country, fostering a deep, lustful adoration for a slightly older woman in the group, who is already involved with the powerful man at the head of the organization. We can imagine that, pretty clearly.
But because it’s a woman at the helm of the story, and a woman who sits as the romantic rival, the tones of longing and sexuality and danger are completely transformed. There is the heavy implication—both in the film and in the audience’s head—that Star is, continually, in a great deal of danger: from the men around her, from her continual drugs and flasks, from the potential implosion of her romantic dreams. Many early reviews called Star “free-spirited,” where in my viewing, she seemed something more like deliberate, but uninhibited. She doesn’t accept every strange and wild chance that she comes across—she is taken aback by the group’s frequent flasher and is sometimes withdrawn and self-isolating—but she decisively chooses what boundaries to cross. She decides who she sleeps with, who she drinks with, whose car she’ll jump into next. Where rootlessness makes her as a young female lead seem initially vulnerable, she ultimately proves herself to be, rather, unrestrained.
Much like Broad City reclaimed the stoner comedy as a female genre, American Honey is a coming of age adventure story that reclaims the road-trip genre for a female protagonist. When Jack Kerouac traces his way through various bars and women, it’s a wild, careening adventure. When Star does it, it’s dangerous. When she acts, aware of and despite whatever specifically feminine danger is written on the scenario, she gifts the movie with its particular brand of female fearlessness. We watch her drink a group of wealthy white ranchers under the table on a dare. She decides to get into the cab of a truck, chat with the driver about Bruce Springsteen, and then get out again on the roadside, having made her magazine sale and genuinely liking her new friend.
Star’s decisions throughout the movie aren’t what anyone would call safe. She rides in a stolen car, tears off her partner’s condom before sex, and pins all her hopes on a persistent crush. But she’s also strikingly childish at times: she’s giddy and flattered that Jake gifts her star-shaped stickers to decorate her sales kit. There are no calls on this character to be humble, to be calm, to be chaste, to be careful, or even to be consistent. She is testing her new world of adulthood, and her rewards are by no means making the most sales, staying out of trouble, or getting the guy.
That being said, the movie does lose momentum in the editing room. The cinematography and the performances shine, and perhaps the editors thought so too, since they seemed so loathed to let any of their material go. Like filling up the memory on your phone because you can’t bear to delete vacation pictures, the film fills up its runtime with calm, floating, emotive footage of passing Americana and roadside stops—which is to say, it relies on its audience to bask in the road-trip atmosphere.
Sophia Coppola’s Bling Ring tried to plays with a similar technique, with similarly mixed results. Bling Ring focused on a horde of ultra-elite LA teenagers who, out of boredom and a playful sense of invincibility, take to robbing the houses of celebrities around Beverly Hills. Like American Honey, Coppola—a definitively auteur filmmaker—induces her film’s form itself with a heavy-handed dose of atmospheric vapidness. Big, shiny subject matter—flat, calm treatment. Coppola’s tight control over style is continually outstanding, and the Bling Ring is no exception. American Honey certainly gives a similar feeling, dealing in huge, lazy swathes of time, where plot lies realistically loose over the day-in, day-out lives of the characters. I hold out hope that Arnold shared the intentionality of Coppola’s vapid caper.
The length of Arnold’s movie, in its defense, wouldn’t have stood out so drastically if it had arrived in the rush of 2013 films like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, when three hours or so was a trendy runtime for a film that wanted to be taken seriously. But, as it is, American Honey feels at times, interminable. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile and unpredictable ride. At the moment, Sasha Lane has three more films in postproduction, and I for one will be going to see each of them.