American Honey is an epic, 163-minute odyssey wandering across the run-down heartland of the United States. The film is so defined by both its uniquely American sensibilities and outright rejection of the social norm, as it enthusiastically embraces youthful liberation.
In the opening scene of the film, we are introduced to Star (Sasha Lane), a free-spirited 18-year-old, as she dumpster dives for expired chicken with her two younger siblings, in the hopes of scoring dinner for the night. The trio is obviously not very well off, which is made even more apparent once we get a look at their home life: a small home comprised of a drunk for a father and an uncaring mother. With nothing to lose, Star joins up with the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his merry band of misfits as they travel the country in a beat-down van, selling magazines to whoever will buy them. These magazines are simply a means to an end for Jake and company, as the group uses their profits to fuel their nights of partying, substance abuse, and sexual freedom.
There is no central plot to American Honey, but there doesn’t have to be. It’s the ultimate road movie, as the film moves from scene to scene, town to town, without any sense of direction or purpose, as we follow Star’s journey across America. Star is consistently at the center of the film. Every triumph, every heartbreak, and every poor decision are experienced from her perspective.
These painful and joyous events prove to be so damn effective due to the pure rawness in Sasha Lane’s breakout performance. This has to be one of the strongest debuts from an actress of all time. Lane is untrained, but that only gives her role a genuine sense of realness, authenticity, and warmth, as she dominates the film with her youthful, spontaneous energy. Star is aimless, looking for acceptance and belonging wherever she can. She finds this in her van full of outcasts, who become something of a surrogate family to her, and in Jake, as young love takes hold of her.
LaBeouf gives the best performance of his career here, as he embodies the charming and dangerous Jake. The chemistry between LaBeouf and Lane is so fiery and palpable that the intensely intimate moments between the pair are made all the more emotionally resonant. LaBeouf plays the character with this underlying vulnerability that allows for easy empathy, even when he commits heinous acts.
The cast of characters in American Honey are anything but upstanding citizens, and the film doesn’t make any apologies for them. Director Andrea Arnold isn’t trying to make you like these characters as people, but simply emphasize with them. As is eternally inevitable with youth, these teenagers feel purposeless, trying to find meaning in whatever they can. Whether that meaning is found in each other or dancing naked around a campfire, can change from night-to-night with these kids.
The soundtrack of the film fits this spontaneity perfectly. The soundtrack is encompassing of a wide array of genres, from rap, to country, to droning and emotional indie music. None of the music really pairs well together (some songs are even played repeatedly), as the current emotional state of the van decides the music that will be playing. This is less of a soundtrack to the film and more the soundtrack to these kids’ lives. This haphazardness fits the film’s identity perfectly, further expounding on these characters.
The purposelessness and looseness are what gives American Honey so much of its character and style. Arnold elected to use a 4:3 aspect ratio, which helps give the film a nostalgic, almost documentary-like feel. This is aided by its script, which is heavily improvised, as it helps define each of the individual characters in way that feels unique from traditionally scripted films. The chaotic structure is so emphatic of the kids’ state of mind, and the impulsiveness of their lives. A gun will get drawn here, a character will be hired as a prostitute there, but none of it matters in the long run. Every event like this is just another stop on their endless journey of misadventures.
This is what is so wonderful about American Honey. The film contains some supremely dark moments, but they are contrasted with gleeful moments of hope, in this formative period of Star’s life. Arnold knows full well that there is no light without darkness, no love without hate, and there is beauty to be found in every one of these moments.
American Honey is a masterpiece.