In American Honey, Andrea Arnold is obsessed with animals: dogs, bees, birds, horses, cows, fireflies, a grasshopper, and a bear make appearances in this shaggy dog of a film. It’s a pity David Michôd already laid claim to the title Animal Kingdom; Arnold’s American Midwest is a world where the people are at their most primal, hunting and gathering whatever they can. American Honey recasts the road movie as a freewheeling jungle safari.
We get introduced to this safari through Star (Sasha Lane), an impoverished eighteen-year-old girl in Muskogee, Oklahoma, as she goes dumpster-diving with her half-siblings in tow. Arnold’s protagonists are usually multi-hyphenates in their families – examples include Zoe, the mother of WASP, and Mia in Fish Tank – and Star is no different; she’s a big sister, wife, daughter, mother, and teenager all in one. Arnold emphasizes the stark contrast between these different roles early on in the film: after Star returns home from her dumpster dive, her father – the absentee mother of the film is a flip on the absentee fathers of Dog, WASP, and Fish Tank – forces her to sway with him in the living room while he feels her up (daughter/girlfriend), after which we see her swinging in the backyard (child).
Star gets the possibility of escaping her current life when she comes across a magazine crew called the “071s,” a motley crew of nomads who travel across the country and sell magazine subscriptions to make money. She is promptly recruited by the crew’s business manager, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), after they lock eyes in a K-Mart, perfectly set to Rihanna’s party anthem “We Found Love,” and then circle around each other, sizing each other up, in the K-Mart parking lot. Star soon runs away from home and joins the crew, led by mother hen Crystal (Riley Keough), and gets introduced to the nomad life of con games, rowdy rituals, and endless parties. One of Arnold’s strengths as a director is the way she casts her films; the 071s crew is packed with non-professional actors that Arnold cast, like Raymond Coalson and McCaul Lombardi, by visiting strip clubs, bars, county fairs, grocery outlets, dollar stores, parking lots, beaches, and parks, and the camaraderie and atmosphere that they bring to the film is one of its biggest strengths. Lane, herself a non-professional actor who was found by Arnold while on her spring break in Panama City, Florida, is fresh and dynamic as Star, and she expertly plays off of LaBeouf’s wild, unhinged energy, which is reminiscent of James Franco’s turn in Spring Breakers without the latter’s provocative, in-your-face, hammy self-consciousness.
Star and the 071s guide us through a middle America fraught with poverty and hypocrisy. Crystal takes her crew to wealthy neighborhoods of designer homes and lush backyards to make their sales, standing in stark contrast to the motel rooms that the crew camps out in each night. Selling magazines isn’t about the magazines themselves, as Jake explains to Star, but about the person making the sale. Arnold uses their sales interactions to depict the hypocrisy of the wealthy in America; the Christian values of charity and sharing are preached, but not practiced. Jack tries to appeal to those values with one of his marks, singing a gospel song and pounding his chest, but she declines to even hear their sales pitch. Another potential mark claims to be a charitable Christian, even as her nubile daughter and her friends alluringly dance outdoors in the shower of the sprinklers.
While Arnold’s earlier films dealt with the hope that can bloom even in the most hopeless of places, American Honey deals with that revisited theme of American cinema: the death of the American Dream. The theme of dreams circulates through the narrative of the film, sometimes in cloying and obvious ways, like when a trucker that Star encounters to make a magazine sale asks her about her dreams while Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” plays in the background. Star and Jake represent the opposite interpretations of the American Dream; Jake’s entrepreneurial spirit and salesman tactics clash with Star’s honesty and sincerity. American Honey would play excellently alongside Hell or High Water (2016), another film that deals with the same themes, albeit in a different way. While David Mackenzie, the director of Hell or High Water, uses his characters and the way they display their collective hatred for the banking institutions to depict the current contempt for the American Dream, Arnold forces us to face the harsh realities of the poverty the recession left behind, hinting at the changed perceptions held by a new generation of children towards the Dream as a whole.
Arnold and her frequent cinematographer Robbie Ryan bathe their film with a twilight glow that emulates the dreams the film deals with. This is their best looking film yet, and it’s a step forward from their pale greys and muted colors in Fish Tank. Arnold and Ryan also employ a strand of poetic realism that’s wondrous to watch. In one particularly beautiful scene, the camera floats alongside Star and Jake as he chases her through the backyards of a suburban neighborhood they are in and tackles her down. As they kiss, the sprinklers turn on, and it rains down on them perfectly.
The ironic thing about American Honey is that it uses a compact 4:3 boxed frame, but has a loose and meandering story that drags on (it has a runtime of 2 hours and 45 minutes), especially in the second half of the film. While Arnold maintains her focus on the love triangle that develops among Star, Jake, and Crystal, she also succumbs to the excess of musical montages in the crew’s van. Even though the soundtrack is stellar, with eclectic choices across hip-hop, electronic, and country songs, the way in which songs are used gets repetitive; a case in point is the fact that Arnold employs two endings in the film that both feel climactic, one which uses Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey” and another which uses Raury’s “God’s Whisper”. This is Arnold’s first ensemble film, but she’s torn in how much focus she wants to give to the mag crew and how much she wants to focus on Star’s own journey, and it shows. American Honey is a party which goes on for maybe thirty minutes too long, but it’s a party that deserves to be experienced in a theater this year.