Directed by Andrea Arnold
Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Full of brisk, windswept close-ups from the roads of the American midwest, Andrea Arnold's Cannes Jury Prize winning film American Honey is the kind of film that doesn't come along often enough. It's dirty, kind of clumsy, and brutally honest while upholding a certain gravitas that continually elevates throughout its almost three hour journey. Featuring a group of mostly-unknown actors, Arnold has pieced together the year's most ambitious and most beautifully reverent film.
We first meet Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) while she's dumpster diving with her boyfriend's children, looking for that night's supper. Ending up unsuccessful at hitching a ride back home, Star catches the eye of Jake (Shia LaBeouf) as he and his fellow group of roughnecked crew pull into a nearby grocery store. One flirtatious conversation later and a grimace-inducing encounter with her redneck boyfriend later and Star is on the run to meet up with Jake and head out of Oklahoma for Kansas City as the newest member of the partying free birds and their fifteen passenger van. After arriving in Kansas City, Jake takes Star under his wing to show her the ropes and perhaps spark a romance along the way.
Arnold's direction is key, especially with the scope of the entirety of the film. The long runtime seems like a big investment, but the care taken in the telling of Star's story is so specific and so visually impacting that you easily forget you're sitting there for so long. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan relies on frequent close-ups and constant steadycam to allow for a fully engulfed experience. Plus, the entire thing is shot and screened in full screen, as opposed to the usual widescreen. That aspect ratio completely adds to the slice-of-life feel. That's not to say we aren't treated to some powerfully chosen images, however. With the American road as the backdrop and most of the film relying on natural light, American Honey becomes an interesting glimpse into the people and places we pass or interact with or maybe even know.
While the picture looks great, it's really the performances that enhance and sell the entire project. Similar to Gus Van Sant's Palme d'Or winning film Elephant, Arnold's decision to use mostly unknown actors works in her favor. In fact, these non-performers are so good, many will hopefully go on to further success. Sasha Lane, the film's poetic star, is a revelation, turning in a captivating and inspiring debut performance. Supported by LaBeouf's Jake, Star is a piece of American culture that isn't generally considered harrowing enough to matter. But, the relationship between Star and Jake is so believable and the characters are so genuine, it makes sense why their love and turmoil and redemption makes for the perfect opus.
Riley Keough, as crew boss Krystal, plays the catty, trashy card to almost stereotypical lengths, without ever giving in to caricature. Her natural beauty is hidden by a world of sleaze and hard-knocks, though not for sake of trying. McCaul Lombardi is one of the film's strongest highlights as the unbelievably bold Corey, a good ol' southern boy with enough soppy charm to fill a glass of sweet tea who isn't afraid to show his family jewels anytime, anyplace. The rest of the group thrives off of brilliant circumstances and an atmosphere created by Arnold to allow them to bounce one-liners off of one another and interact in a natural way.
The script is far from shallow or forgiving, especially in regards to the types of people and things it takes time to show. While never dissecting the downside to the crew's chosen path of life, despite their many nights spent in slum-filled motels, the undercurrent of emotional and mental sadness is present in each and every face. These aren't people to idolize in the sense of their efforts or accomplishments, but they are people to respect. Each one is intrinsically genuine. Each one is an outsider. While they may not come from much, or even ever amount to much, there's an understanding that out of nothing at least they have each other and they have their sense of adventure. They aren't hippies. They aren't freeloaders. They work hard. They play hard.
Star's internal journey of maturity from hard-nosed adolescence to her first taste of freedom is the meat of the picture. Thanks to Lane's unfiltered performance, Star is sometimes hard to root for, though her happiness is what drives everything. When she makes a seemingly bad decision, the gut of the film seems to cringe right along with her. When she takes a dip in a nearby lake while the rest of the gang dances around a fire, singing along to Raury's "God's Whisper," the swelling sounds of nature and this world and companionship and loneliness collide.
If you were to take the magic and wilderness of the heart from Into the Wild and mix it with the filthy madness and beauty of Spring Breakers, you'd have the masterpiece that is American Honey.
Runtime: 2h 43min