Within minutes of American Honey’s scanty opening credits, comparisons to Larry Clark’s Kids become inevitable and well-deserved. Clark’s 1995 film, however, has less story than Andrea Arnold’s.
American Honey follows young Star (a debut and star-making performance by Sasha Lane) as she seeks a way out of a dead-end life by joining a “mag crew,” young people like herself who go door to door selling magazine subscriptions under the watchful eye of their pimp . . . er, I mean “boss,” Krystal. They drink, they smoke out in the van, a couple of them have graphic sex, and then the movie is over.
That’s how it will play out to more conservative audiences. There is much more to this story, however.
While trying to hitch a ride home with two young kids, Star happens to notice Jake (Shia LaBeouf) sitting shotgun in a white van that’s blaring bass-heavy rap. Apparently she’s smitten with him immediately, following the crew into a store and flirting with him. Why Star is so suddenly attracted to just another face in the van packed full of kids (and one bare-ass mooning), the film never says, and that was a small disappointment.
Once Star and Jake begin their mating dance, however, Star’s original motive for talking to him loses importance. Jake’s motive for flirting back ultimately becomes foremost, because by story’s end, we’ll see Jake’s true motivation for charming (and bedding) Star: he’s a skilled salesman and he knows how to instantly identify other potential sellers to round out Krystal’s mag crew. That Star falls hard for him once they have some time together is not strange—he is a salesman after all, and he sells her on his grungy suitcoats and streetwise patter. But one distant glance at a guy in a van from across a busy street, and that’s all it takes for Star to fall for him? That part comes off a little muddled.
Having said that, this “insta-love” element is almost the point. For Star, it is love at first sight, and the film doesn’t apologize for that.
Indeed, it apologizes for nothing at all.
The film redefines “gritty.” From the very first frame of Star rooting around in a Dumpster for food, finding a packaged whole chicken that’s been in there for god-knows-how-long and then tossing it to a little red-haired cutie-pie boy that is in her care, there’s no question this is going to be a filthy film. And it is. You can smell this movie, and it doesn’t smell good.
This opening scene in the dumpster is absolutely heartbreaking, and puts us squarely in Star’s corner from the opening moment of the film. When she goes home—if you can call it that—and ends up leaving the two kids (who are not hers, it seems, though her relationship to them and their dad was a bit hard to grasp) to go join Jake and the mag crew, there’s definitely a moment of anger on our part. How could she leave these two sweethearts with their idiotic, careless, line-dancing mother? But we also understand; she needs to get out, and get out now. The question is, is the family she finds on the road any better than the one she’s leaving behind? While the plot is essentially a love story between Star and Jake, the film’s themes veer more toward finding one’s tribe and redefining family.
But by the time the world’s shortest credits roll (feeling like a throwback to ’70s movie credits, perhaps on purpose), it’s the “clean” things in the film that make us feel the most dirty. When three older white men (including an outstandingly creepy Will Patton) wearing ten-gallon hats and big ol’ buckles roll up to Star in a massive white convertible and she climbs into the car with them to have a “barbeque” somewhere down the road . . . well, that is one of the most terrifying moments in the movie.
We’re not given much backstory on any of the characters, including Star, and even what little biography we do have—she’s 18, was born in Oklahoma but moved to Texas when little because her mother died from “meth”—we can’t say for certain is true. These are kids (regardless of their ages, and Star is the only one who gives us an age) whose livelihood depends on lies.
The mag crew are all basically good, if damaged, kids. Yeah, they smoke and drink and get high and get naked… but if anyone wants to pretend that many American middle- and upper-class kids aren’t doing the same thing, then, power to ya. We’re all good kids at first. It’s what people do to us that makes all the difference.
For these characters, most of whom are not played by trained actors, there is only now. No one in Honey talks about the future, at least not until well past the halfway mark, when a kindly trucker asks Star what her dreams are. She says, “No one’s ever asked me that before.” Star later asks Jake the same question, he responds the same as she did: No one has ever asked him about his dreams for the future. Both of their final answers mirror a trend in America as evidenced by shows like Tiny House Hunters: Jake says something like, “I just want to be small”, or “I just want to live small”. Both talk about getting a little piece of land to live on, and that’s it. Star says she wants her own trailer and lots of trees. These are simple requests, shared at heart with most Americans when all is said and done.
These characters are not eccentric — they are human. Young and human, to be more precise. Their lives are simultaneously free and structured, which it turns out is exactly what the adolescent brain requires (adolescence now being defined as the ages between around 11 to around 22, or even 25).
One Dad-part of me is like, “Hey Krystal, you’re exploiting these kids!” And another Dad-part of me is like, “Yeah, but you’re taking better care of them than who was in charge prior to this, so…” It’s not an ideal life, and Arnold does not romanticize it, but for most if not all of these characters, it’s the best family they’ve ever had. There is no tomorrow, remember; no one, not even Krystal, can think ahead to IRAs or home ownership or retirement; these are the purview of the fortunate, as any American in 2016 should be able to recognize by now. But where Kids showed a spotlight on Youth Today!, Honey actually consists of a real story populated by some of the same (types of) kids we saw in Clark’s movie but which strives for something a bit more: empathy.
The performances are excellent all the way around. Whether that is due to directing or the film’s largely improvisational script, it is hard to say. Shia LaBeouf’s performance will be the one most people will be curious about (if curious at all). When I saw his performance in Holes (2003)—lo, these many ages ago—it seemed clear he was a kid destined for some real Hollywood stardom. This he certainly achieved, and then—starting with his classic mispronunciation of “epitome,” perhaps, and going crazy from there—he seemed to begin a long downward spiral in the public eye. (Maybe he’s Not Famous Anymore…?)
Yet in 1994, John Travolta wasn’t having much of a career. Then along comes Pulp Fiction, and I recall thinking, “Travolta? Really? Wasn’t he in Look Who’s Talking 3 or something?” By the time Pulp Fiction was over, though, there was no doubt his career was back on track.
American Honey may be LaBeouf’s Pulp Fiction; it is brutal and charming and hurtful and excellent. Or, it may be another stunt performance like he’s given so many times before. It depends on what he does after Honey. Hopefully the critical reception to his performance is positive. LaBeouf’s Jake is a dirty, streetwise salesman who can’t stand up to the woman giving him orders (wonderfully played by Riley Keough, who’d better get some accolades for her role as Krystal), but who can turn around and use his charms to woo the likes of Star, who is genuinely besotted with him. He explains his sales tactic to her early on: “Find out who the person needs and become that person for them.” And this, in the end, is exactly what Jake does for Star. She is too young, perhaps, to realize it. And he is too old, perhaps, to be anything but that salesman anymore.
Despite clocking in at nearly three hours, the film never drags or meanders. It could have cut ten to twenty minutes, yes; the ending is back-to-back singalongs with the whole mag crew that both “say” essentially the same things, so one of them could have easily been cut, for example. Still, the film spins along from one town to the next, not at breakneck speed but at an even pace that keeps our attention throughout. American Honey makes the most out of its visual storytelling medium, letting the camera linger and do the work a camera is supposed to do; therefore, the story is not bogged down with excessive dialogue.
American Honey, like so many “small,” indie films is the cinematic equivalent of a literary novel: light on plot, heavy on character and theme. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a statement of how the material is treated. For example, it becomes obvious about halfway through that Arnold is using insects and other small creatures as some kind of motif, but I am simply too obtuse to understand its purpose. Maybe astute students of film craft can explain it to me, because I did not grasp it. So, like much of literary fiction, I was left scratching my head at all the bug references. It’s not the film’s fault I didn’t understand, and it’s not the film’s fault I like my plots nice and plain and on display. But when such little artistic flourishes do show up (in film or in print), it makes me feel a little stupid, and nobody likes that. Maybe other viewers will glean some kind of Great Importance from the bugs that eludes me.
Verdict: I liked it. I wouldn’t sit through it again, but I liked it.
Rating: 4 stars
Star (Sasha Lane) is a free-spirited teenager on the brink of adulthood who leaves her troubled home in the American Midwest and hits the road with a “mag crew,” itinerant laborers who peddle publications door-to-door for long hours during the day and party hard at night, never certain where the job will lead next. Led by hard-driving manager Krystal (Riley Keough) and her seductive enforcer Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the 15-strong 071 Crew becomes a surrogate family to Star, offering hope, possibility, love—and the freedom that comes from being on the road.
For her first feature set and filmed in the U.S., writer-director Andrea Arnold (FISH TANK, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Academy Award-winning short WASP) offers an electrifying depiction of American youth living on the margins and yearning to belong in an unforgiving landscape of strip malls, chain hotels and suburban sprawl. An epic odyssey into American economic life as seen through the eyes of its outcasts, underdogs and strivers—many of whom were cast directly from the nation’s streets—AMERICAN HONEY features a star-making performance by newcomer Lane, an astonishing turn by LaBeouf, and an unforgettable soundtrack melding country, Southern hip-hop “trap” music and American radio classics. Arnold’s visionary and propulsive fourth feature is a generation-defining cinematic experience that locates unexpected beauty between the cracks of a fractured—yet defiantly hopeful and resilient—nation where a new day can bring anything…
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Written by: Andrea Arnold
Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Rated: R, 162 minutes