American Honey, review: Easy Rider for the new generation

Shot in startlingly intimate fashion, it combines gritty blue-collar realism with moments of extraordinary tenderness and lyricism

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The Independent Culture

Andrea Arnold, 164 mins, starring: Sasha Lane, Shia La Beouf, Riley Keough

American Honey, British director Andrea Arnold’s first US-set feature, is a freewheeling and very original road movie, shot in startlingly intimate fashion. It combines gritty blue-collar realism with moments of extraordinary tenderness and lyricism. This is the kind of film in which you’ll see characters foraging for food in a supermarket skip one moment and then communing with nature the next. It takes its energy from its young protagonists, a crew of travelling magazine sellers who roam the country in their minibus, staying in cheap motels and partying wildly en route.

Newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star, a rebellious young woman stuck in a dead-end town who joins the crew en route to Kansas. “You gotta anybody who’s goin’ to miss you?” she’s asked. “Not really” is her response. She is drawn to the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the star salesman, after seeing him lead the rest of the gang in an impromptu dance routine in a supermarket as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” plays on the speakers.

The film is nothing if not contradictory. Jake and the others may seem like anarchic spirits, present-day Peter Pans, but they’re also budding young capitalists who use unscrupulous means to sell their magazine subscriptions. They’re bullied by their boss Krystal (played by Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), a beautiful but aloof and cynical figure.

She organises “losers’ nights” in which those who have the worst sales results are forced to fight each other. Krystal pays for the petrol and the accommodation but she always takes the biggest cut for herself – and has the most handsome sellers as her lovers.

There is an improvisatory quality to much of the storytelling. This is especially true of the scenes between Star and Jake (who is assigned to train her in the art of selling.) He’s a mountebank with the ability to invent ever more far-fetched stories about himself in order to ingratiate himself with buyers. He’ll pretend to be an ardent Christian or to be a selfless college student, raising money for new campus facilities. Star refuses to play along. She is defiantly honest – one reason why she barely manages to sell any subscriptions at all.

Arnold’s storytelling is closer to verité-style documentary than it is to conventional fictional narrative. The director doesn’t spell out her characters’ motivations or their backstories. Instead, she observes them. They themselves hardly seem to realise why they are behaving in the way they do. Everything always appears to be in flux and in the present tense. The film is full of handheld close-ups of Star as she looks in at this strange world. 

After all his mainstream Hollywood movies, LaBeouf clearly relishes appearing in a film as dirty and naturalistic as this. He gives a very striking performance as Jake, combining boyish charm with, at times, a near psychotic ferocity. Lane, though, dominates the film. With her braided hair and tattoos, she is a wild and very free spirit who’ll yell out lines like, “God can go fuck himself.”

She is defiant both towards Krystal and towards customers who might try to take advantage of her. At the same time, she has a vulnerability which brings out the protective side in others. Men you think are going to take advantage of her, for example, the three old cowboys who invite her to a barbecue and get her drunk on mescal or even the oil worker who offers her a fortune for sexual favours, are surprisingly solicitous towards her. She is also always trying to look after kids in trouble or to save insects and animals from harm. 

American Honey - Trailer

The inevitable romance between Jake and Star is dealt with in ambiguous fashion. Jake seems to be falling in love with Star and is very possessive of her – but he is also in a relationship with Krystal and it is hinted that he has used his charm often before to recruit impressionable young women to the team. The sex scenes are shot in realistic and resolutely unglamorous fashion. 

Arnold is dealing with many different aspects of contemporary American life. She portrays both pampered middle-class kids and impoverished children who have next to nothing. One of the more startling sequences comes when Krystal instructs her sellers to target a community of “poor people”. Here, Star comes across a family in which the mother is off her head on drugs and the kids, one of whom quotes her lyrics from Dead Kennedys songs, are close to starving. Rather than take advantage of them, she buys them groceries.

Sometimes the scenes showing Star engaging with the natural world feel contrived. There is a very odd, unexplained sequence shot in “magic hour” (dawn or dusk) in which a passing bear comes up and seems to rub noses with her. We see Star in mud and water, always ready to embrace the elements.

At least initially, Star is enchanted by life on the road with this group of merry pranksters. When they’re all singing along together in the minivan to some rap or to a country anthem like Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey”, they couldn’t be more content. They’re delighted to be away from the stresses of everyday life, and relish each other’s company. There are times, though, when they look like very lost souls, terrified of having to grow up.

They’re like contemporary equivalents to the rebels from the Easy Rider generation. What’s noticeable is that they are not remotely politicised. They have no horizons or goals beyond their next sales pitches. If this is limbo, from Star’s point of view, it is still much, much better than what she left behind.