7.5 out of 10
Sasha Lane as Star
Directed by Andrea Arnold
American Honey Review:
We do not know much about Star (Sasha Lane) when we first meet her, dumpster diving for food with two little kids in tow. The kids aren’t hers, but her boyfriend’s, and Star is trapped in what seems to be an abusive relationship until she sees a van pull up, full of disparate youth, including Jake (Shia LaBeouf). It’s through this group of young people that Star escapes, hitting the road and seeing the country, into a land that we don’t see very much, sandwiched between cleaning commercials and political talking heads who claim to know what this country is truly about. This is an adventure of the soul, an exploration of the back alleys, the seedy motels, the paved streets and weed-filled pavement cracks, the night skies and sun-bleached days of America.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is beautiful, frustrating, unstructured, and challenging. She, along with her able cast, are exploring what it really means to be an American, through a group of young people that do not fit into any one place, or in any kind of status structure that anyone would put them in. Star and these kids are ostensibly selling magazines across the country, in the employ of Krystal (Riley Keough) – walking the streets of the suburbs and the truck stops, never staying in one place. Star is taken with Jake, who seems structured and put-together, but he’s searching for something elusive just as she is.
Whenever I see a film with “American” in the title, it always feels like a sort-of state of the union, a grand statement that attempts to encompass what it means to live in America at that point in time. American Graffiti was an ode to a youth lost to war and the strife of the 1960s; American Beauty seemed to mourn the loss of the traditional family; American Psycho seemed to say that with just a simple changing of perspective, we’re all just a bit crazy here. Andrea Arnold seems to be searching for something else entirely – for a piece of America that the pundits never explore or talk about, of the America between what we see and what we’re being sold.
There is a grace to American Honey that may seem to some to be defiantly unfocused, but this isn’t our world but Star’s, who sees America for the first time unfettered and without rules. The decisions she makes are, perhaps, not the decisions we’d make, and there are many scenes in the film that threaten to turn darker. There is a threat of violence throughout American Honey, a feeling that at any moment the world can turn sour and unrelenting. This is an experiential film; we are not attaching our perspectives on Star’s life, but instead we are forced to live and breathe through her eyes and experiences.
America was built on stories like Star’s; we’ve all been brought up on tales of our grandparents, meeting each other in times of turbulence and strife, perhaps a chance meeting in the uncertainty of war or the changing of the times. Star’s story is no different from theirs, and I had this odd feeling of disconnect, as if Star was telling her stories of her youth across the years. American Honey is a difficult movie to enter at times because of its constant viewpoint, but through it we are given an opportunity to see this country through eyes unclouded by our own dogmas and politics. It’s a very freeing experience, without judgment or preconceived notions of forcing Star’s world into our own personal box of experiences and life lessons.
The performances are wonderful and nuanced – since we are seeing everything through Star’s experiences a lot of heavy lifting is put upon Sasha Lane’s shoulders, but she carries all of it with true grace and talent. This is a star-making performance, that should take her many places, but Lane, at times, doesn’t seem to be acting as much as she is actually living those moments for herself. She’s magnetic and always unexpected, and Lane is incredible in her work here.
Shia LaBeouf gives just as much as Lane does – this is probably his best work as an actor, and even though his life offscreen may be tabloid material, here he is able to find a true balance. Jake has wants and dreams just as Star does, but he is also captive to the choices that he’s made and continues to make, and LaBeouf does subtle and earnest work bringing Jake’s conflicted nature to the film. Riley Keough may at times seem to be the villain (if there is such a thing in this movie), but it’s through little moments that we see the wounded woman within, and she is riveting throughout. All the performances of the various kids that float through Star’s life like lightning bugs on a summer night are well crafted, and Arnold has a real affinity with actors that comes forth in American Honey.
This isn’t a film for everyone, and certainly not a casual viewing experience. American Honey is almost three hours long and feels it; the film meanders at times when it could be more focused and our traditional needs of plot get in the way when the movie wants to flow. We worry for Star. As in real life, the threat of violence seems to be everywhere, and American Honey wants us to feel that threat implicitly, what it’s like to be a young woman on the road in America. Andrea Arnold wants us to live this life on screen with no judgments. The first step towards empathy, the film suggests, is to put aside our own experiences and judgments and try to understand a world that we aren’t taking part in; that these experiences, although not our own, are just as valuable and important as anything we’ve ever done in our American lives. American Honey has moments of beauty, grace, and wonder; it also has moments of frustration as we struggle to empathize with it. But American Honey is a journey worth taking, if you’re adventurous and willing to take the ride.