Like your hair blowing in the wind or a wave crashing on the shore, you can’t contain Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. It flows by its own force of nature. You must simply absorb it, consume it, accept it on its own terms — if you can.
It’s a daring, exciting, haunting and often liberating look at youth, poverty and American idealism, a film that refuses to fall victim to the conventions of other coming-of-age dramas, while still producing something so relatable, honest and equally sincere. The intimate three-hour odyssey might not be to everyone’s liking, but that’s not in its best interests. It simply wants to speak to those who’ve felt alone, those who once found understanding in Jack Kerouac novels and those who simply want to be understood, whether they need to be or not, in a world defined by unspecific beauty. In that sense, American Honey is one of the most soulful, indelible and deeply understanding movies of the year.
Much like Arnold’s overlooked 2009 feature Fish Tank, the writer/director thrives at letting untampered talent charge at the center. Newcomer Sasha Lane, whom she found on a beach, stuns in the lead role as Star, an 18-year-old redneck providing for her neglected younger siblings alongside her creepy boyfriend. Her life already seems designed, and it’s one filled with endless shortcomings and little reward beyond scamped from the local Walmart’s dumpster. But she’s given hope when she spots Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a bad boy with a rattail, pocket protector and a heart of gold, on that very faithful day.
Along with his group of neglected teenagers from all around, he travels the country via bus to sell magazine subscriptions to privileged or unsuspecting homes around the country. They lie and say they’re wayward youth, or born again christians, or college students hoping to fix up their school. Anything and everything to get people to buy. And Jake offers Star a chance to join them in their little road trip adventure, her own personal Oz, an opportunity which will only be available until the following morning. She’s reluctant but nevertheless enticed. Star likes to be with a boy who flirts with her so easily, and she wants to have fun, but more than anything else, she wants to find herself. She wants life to come on her own terms again. She wants to define her purpose, and that’s what found with Jake and his group of ragtag teens. And that’s why she joins them.
American Honey is an exhilarating experience. Like Blue is the Warmest Color, it’s an intimate epic that’s not merely defined by its extended length but the personal and developmental journey found within. It’s as delicate as it is visceral. It’s an unconventional as it’s remarkably true to life. It’s a defining movie for Arnold, a rising filmmaker who once again proves she knows how to take the impoverished, the hopeless, the misguided the seemingly empty and turn it into something that’s so astoundingly gorgeous and bewitching at each and every on-screen moment.
Even when you think you know where it’s going, or when the rollercoaster will work its way back into the tunnel, Arnold’s latest always pulls you back and proves otherwise. It constantly leaves you enamored, transfixed and surprised in its bold conventions. It proves that filmmaking should never be as acceptably passive as we’ve allowed it to become. She brings risk and audacity back to the multiplex. It’s welcomed. It’s refreshing. It’s needed.
Most movies wish they were this alive. Most movies refuse to feel this palpable and authentic. Especially with movies becoming more lifeless and asinine than ever, it’s a gift to have one as raw and affecting as American Honey. Granted, not every risk pays off. There are perhaps five too many animal, bird and insect metaphors relating to how Star desire to escape and be free. It starts to lose some of its stamina, like Donald Trump would say, towards the end. But it’s nevertheless relentless, no matter how tired it can become or as repetitive as it can be in some of its symbolism. It’s as rich and meaningful as films get in 2016, the perfect way to bring young people back into reality-based filmmaking in our media-absorbed Twitter world. It’s so rooted in grounded emotions that it often feels like the camera was rolling instead of filming. Arnold’s knack for capturing tremendous performances from amateur actors is never less than incredible. She’s a marvel, a gem, a needed beacon for her art form.
Yet, American Honey‘s best performances belong to the two experienced performers: LaBeouf and The Girlfriend Experience‘s Riley Keough as Krystal, the real leader of the ragtag gang. LaBeouf is as deeply felt and natural as ever, and maybe more so this time. He makes you forget about his ridiculous appearance and cracks open the fragile humanity and insecurities buried within his tough exterior.
It’s proof that, no matter how many art performances he gives, LaBeouf still knows how to bring a truly mesmerizing performance. He’s an actor that’s starving for challenges, and thankfully Arnold lets gives them to him plentifully. I immensely look forward to the second wave of his acting career. Keough’s Krystal, meanwhile, is as menacing as she is trashy. She’s a hick with agency, someone who knows exactly what she wants and knows how to get it from those around her. Every moment she’s on screen is more striking than the last. She’s got some serious presence.
Arnold’s style was transfixing with Fish Tank. With American Honey, it’s positively explosive. Naturalistic, wide-reaching, stark and indebted to personal honesty, it’s a character study with tenacity and naked soul, a slice of life American dream fable filled with purpose and feeling. It’s a free-flowing running text put on film, an in-the-moment grassroots effort with conviction and believability for miles on end. It’s shaggy and unyielding, yes, but it’s a wonder to behold. It’s exactly what we needed from the movies these days. It’s reason to believe we can fight and fix ourselves as how we seek fit. It’s one of the most inspiring and illuminating dramas of the year.