AMERICAN HONEY is a rare kind of gem that comes at you in its own leisurely way, takes you off in an unexpected direction, and leaves you with a powerful feeling of affirmation by its conclusion. The laser focused examination of American culture comes from British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, whose films Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights have been filled with isolated characters searching for meaning. The communal nature of this film fixes its gaze on teenage girl Star, played by newcomer Sasha Lane, exploring her voyage of self-discovery via the people who surround her.
Star’s journey begins with her dumpster diving alongside someone else’s young children, immediately painting a portrait of where she is at in her life. When Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his crew of hard-partying teens rolls up, Star jumps at the chance to travel across the country, sell magazines and perhaps change the course of her destiny.
Arnold makes the bold decision to elongate the narrative out over a 163 minute running time, allowing us to feel the alternative weight or levity of each moment. For every impromptu rave or act of rebellion, there is an equally sobering moment of self-realisation. AMERICAN HONEY is not really headed to any particular destination, and it isn’t in any hurry to get there either. There’s a sense of foreboding around scenes involving three good old boys in white, or Star hastily jumping into a stranger’s truck or the back of a pick-up full of oil workers. Those scenes are met with an equivalent and sudden madness, be it the violent reaction of Jake or the larger group getting lost in a thumping piece of hip-hop. As Star walks through the run-off from an abattoir, or encounters a small child whose favourite band is Dead Kennedys, the film brushes up against the surreal.
Yet each of these disparate parts feel holistic thanks to singular performance of the film’s lead. Lane is an amazing find, carrying almost every scene in the film and transfixing our gaze on a type of innocence that breaks through the darkness. LaBeouf is at his charmingly douchey best, a character we warm to throughout the film with some apprehension, but once again it is Star’s gaze that opens us up to a more positive vibe. Riley Keough, who has had an amazing twelve months or so with Mad Max: Fury Road, TV’s The Girlfriend Experience and the beautiful Lovesong, is delightfully trashy in her Confederate Flag bikini as Krystal, the facilitator of the shady business enterprise.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake; Slow West) allows his camera some observational distance, as the impressive youth cast get to just be themselves. There are at least half a dozen more stories that could have been told out of the scenarios, and it’s a testament to the entire production that even this lyrical approach has such focus.
In the spirit of the film’s light touch, the ambiguous ending doesn’t set a heavy-handed direction for our Star, but nor does it leave her adrift. In a lovingly crafted examination of the heartland of America, the surprisingly hopeful message gives her a myriad of options of where to go. After all, it might be trite to say that it’s about the path and not the destination, especially when that journey is far from over.