American Honey, now playing a six-day encore engagement at Facets Cinematheque, is a hypnotic road picture about a crew of wayward young people selling magazine subscriptions across crumbling middle America. After winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival in May, this fourth feature and first U.S. production from British writer- director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) met a slightly weaker reception stateside, where some critics dismissed it as overlong and self-indulgent. Dusty Somers of the Seattle Times described the film as "vividly rendered but increasingly repetitive and aimless," while Adam Graham of the Detroit News went so far as to call it "the most indulgent movie of the year, and the one in most need of a serious trim." What's most remarkable about the work, however, is how Arnold dares the viewer to sit and process American squalor, postadolescent recklessness, and the acuity of her female gaze. Unlike most mainstream films, American Honey is radically subjective: its success depends on how long the viewer is willing to follow the protagonist, Star (Sasha Lane), and see the world through her eyes.
Fortunately, Lane is enthralling. Arnold discovered the Texan, then 19 years old, partying with friends on a Florida beach. Like the majority of the young "mag crew," Lane had never acted before. Yet her photogenic face and natural performance, enhanced by the mystery inherent in an unknown lead, inspire curiosity from the outset. In the opening scenes Star tires of babysitting her younger siblings, delivers them to their shiftless mother, and hits the road. Who is this girl? Where is she going? What will become of her? The film works in large part because of Lane's anonymity, and also because of Arnold's nonjudgmental framing. A lesser director might have mounted Star's story as a morality play, while a more prurient male filmmaker (such as Harmony Korine, whose Spring Breakers is similar to this film) might have viewed her as a sex object instead of the agent of her own story and owner of her own desires. Despite an implied history of sexual abuse and neglect, Star never seems like a victim of circumstance. Nothing about her is passive, affected, or cliched. She is irreducible, and thus interesting.
Arnold embraces repetition, normally a vice in cinema, and turns it into a strength. Star's new family of runaways, played mainly by teens whom Arnold met in strip-mall parking lots and on rural state fairgrounds, pride themselves on their routine, rules, and rituals. They drive from town to town in a dilapidated van, while their ringleader, Krystal (Riley Keough), and her second-in-command, Jake (Shia LaBeouf, not as distracting as one might think), ride ahead in her mysteriously obtained convertible. They stay in cheap motels and canvass local neighborhoods, using sob stories to sell subscriptions to bored Christian housewives. Every week brings "Losers Night," complete with a bonfire, fireworks, and a fistfight between the two lowest earners, though it's really more of a release, for both the fighters and the observers. While driving through economically depressed swaths of Oklahoma, Missouri, and South Dakota, they play their favorite songs, mostly rap and country, and repeat the lyrics as if they were mantras. The kids find safety and comfort in routine, which helps to prolong an aimless adolescence.
Digression, another device storytellers often avoid, leads to key turning points in Star's development. After an argument with Jake, who has become her secret lover, Star impulsively hitches a ride with three middle-aged cowboys who squire her to a stately ranch home and test her mettle with several shots of mescal. Later she rides shotgun with a cattle-truck driver who asks her if she has a dream in life. "I've never been asked that before," she replies, revealing that she'd like to raise children in a little house in the woods. When the crew rolls into a moneyed oil town, Star agrees to a $1,000 "date" with an oil-field worker and, in his car that night, lit by a brilliant natural-gas flare, awakens to her own sexual power. Finally, her sales route takes her to a derelict home where young children try to cope with a meth-addicted mother on the nod. Each vignette strengthens Star's purpose and inner power, and every time she returns to the mag crew and her romantic dalliance with Jake, she's one step closer to breaking free.
As a director, Arnold has a measured, lingering style well suited to long-form storytelling, and she seems to recognize the power of accumulated detail to evoke mood and motivation. Some of the most haunting imagery springs from the prolonged sequences in the crew's van: the skeletal back of a teenage boy undulating as he grinds against a seat; a tiny girl taking a bong hit and leaning down to kiss the sleepy stray dog in her lap; the kids' wistful faces as they sing along to Lady Antebellum's "American Honey" on the radio. This last scene makes clear that Star, quietly and resolutely, has decided to leave for good. All the details and detours have led to this moment, yet saying good-bye to her may feel strange and abrupt, even after 163 minutes. v