Perpetually engaging and enthusiastically irresponsible, American Honey is a fascinating coming-of-age story with naturalistic performances; and a free-spirited road movie with languishing, exultant moments. Gleefully unhinged and indulgent, it’s a wild ride through sex, drugs, and hip hop, with the journey led by one of Britain’s preeminent auteurs working out of her supposed comfort zone.
Star is a barely-18 resourceful outcast taking care of her two young siblings. But when she meets Jake, a table-dancing maverick to whom she’s instantly attracted, she casts off the shackles of responsibility (by delivering her brother and sister to their rightful guardians) to join Jake’s travelling magazine sales crew, composed of misfits and headed by the shrewd and skeptical Krystal. The decision takes Star on a whirlwind journey through the Midwest as she parties, falls in love, and learns about herself.
Writer-director Andrea Arnold has only completed four features – after releasing her Oscar-winning short Wasp in 2003 – and has already achieved an unusual feat: she’s tied with Cannes favourite and fellow UK director Ken Loach (a double Palme d’Or winner) for the highest number of Jury Prize wins, with three. Interestingly, each of those films has shown an expanding ambition: Red Road was a small psychological thriller; Fish Tank was a devious, active kitchen-sink drama; Wuthering Heights was a radical retelling of one of the greatest novels of the 19th century; American Honey is her widest canvas yet.
Along with her consistent track record, Arnold has also generated attention for her tendency to “street cast”, even in the case of major roles. Arnold found Katie Jarvis on a street corner arguing with her boyfriend; their collaboration fashioned one of the best performances of 2009, and it was from someone who had never acted before. Arnold discovered most of the cast for American Honey in parking lots, construction sites, and state fairs, and unearthed breakout star Sasha Lane while she was on spring break.
Indeed, Lane gives a captivating, fearless performance as Star, and she exudes the kind of lustful, willful risk-taking that both suits Star’s nature and reflects the sensibilities of an actor – like Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone or Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene – who has not yet become over-cautious in her artistic process. Shia LaBeouf, given his best role since 2007’s Disturbia amidst a tattered filmography of Michael Bay blockbusters, tears into Jake with menace, and his scenery-chewing intensity is sometimes riveting, always intriguing. (Riley Keough is also typically fantastic as the canny “matriarch” Krystal.)
From a narrative standpoint, Star’s trajectory feels a bit thinly stretched, and one can imagine some audience members rolling their eyes at two hours of reckless rebellion. But that impetuousness, that freedom, that lack of restraint, is whittled down and eventually extinguished in most of us by the time we reach 30, and there’s something special about being reminded what it felt like to jump in a car filled with strangers heading to nowhere. Beyond that, the golden-hued, high-contrast, macro-favouring cinematography of regular Arnold DP Robbie Ryan (Philomena) is impeccable, and the soundtrack – from Rihanna to Springsteen – is almost vengeful in its exuberance.
At 163 minutes, American Honey is inevitably too long; while the sense of energy threaded throughout the film is infectious, it occasionally feels repetitive as it meanders. Some critics have fairly emphasized that such extravagance is not suitable for someone of Arnold’s inclinations, with her penchant for forgotten characters and seemingly insignificant details. On the other hand, the aimlessness and transience mirror the themes, and there are drawn-out scenes (the pool, the sing-alongs) in American Honey that are either so memorable or so essential to knowing these flawed people that it would be remiss to cut much of it out.
Either way, if this is the kind of result we get when Arnold goes for broke (even if she has yet to top her crowning sophomore work), we should encourage such audacity from this talented filmmaker more often. American Honey leaves one giddy with the sheer possibilities of youth, and cinema.