Film of the week: American Honey

Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and crew get their American Dream on in Andrea Arnold’s glistening portrait of the yellow-brick blacktop.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2016.

Pamela Hutchinson
Updated:

Andrea Arnold made her name with distinctively photographed films about social outsiders, often young women, from the provocative revenge drama Red Road (2006) to a sensuous adaptation of Wuthering Heights (2011). American Honey, her first film to be made outside the UK, has most in common with her portrait of a frustrated teenager on an Essex estate, Fish Tank (2009), though the divide between rich and poor gapes in all her films. With this class-conscious road movie, Arnold takes a risk by setting out to pass comment on social inequality in a foreign country.

American Honey follows the trail of Texas teenager Star (Sasha Lane), who leaves her thankless life caring for her younger half-siblings to join a magazine sales crew on the road. These self-styled ‘sales associates’ are led by a glassy-eyed boss called Krystal (Riley Keough) and her pet salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who starts an affair with Star. Their sales techniques are ethically reprehensible and only sporadically effective – preying on customers’ weaknesses until they pay out of pity, lust or guilt.

In opposition to countercultural road movies such as Easy Rider (1969), Krystal’s team travel in pursuit of the American Dream, not to escape it. The US lays out its inequalities for the crew through the van window – the spreading lawns of well-heeled suburbia, the slipshod children playing in motel car parks – and Krystal schemes to exploit them. In a neighbourhood rich on oil money she hands out “dirty white trash” costumes like a latterday Peachum, and tells the boys to target the lonely wives. “These are poor people like you, so just have normal conversations,” she commands. When Star clocks up her first sale, she yells in triumph, “I feel like I’m fucking America!”

American Honey (2016)

The cast is mostly made up of unprofessionals, scouted by Arnold, but even the more familiar names tell a story of soured American dreams. LaBeouf was a Disney child star who lost his marketable innocence via addiction, scandal and questionable performance art. He channels that chequered persona into a captivating turn as a rough, dangerous charmer, veering between sweetness and aggression. Keough, the villain in a Confederate-flag bikini, is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, but exudes the steely smugness of a self-made woman, living large off her underlings’ labour. Lane, whose scrunched-up face gives a wary edge to her most tender moments, was spotted by Arnold on a beach usually trawled by the producers of adult films. With the camera pinned to her face through most of the film, Lane’s naturalistic, often explosive performance crowns American Honey’s success.

When Star and Jake first start flirting, she returns his glitter-encased phone to him, sneering, “You like this shiny thing?” Capitalist Jake likes all shiny things (girls, cash, his hoard of stolen treasure) and American Honey offers itself up as another prize. Its delicious surface is thanks largely to Robbie Ryan’s gorgeous Academy-ratio cinematography, which exploits every source of light for its beauty, from sunshine filtered through gummy bears on a window to fireflies or an oil-well flare. American Honey provides as much spectacle as a Hollywood musical, and the crew spend more time singing, rapping or dancing to the radio than conversing. Jake woos Star by turning a supermarket into a rave as he dances to Rihanna’s We Found Love; Krystal motivates her team with a call-and-response rap; and the gang find unity singing along to American Honey by Lady Antebellum.

American Honey (2016)

American Honey (2016)

American Honey promises a clear narrative path from the moment it drops in a cutaway to a pair of ruby slippers and Star leaps out of her tree-swing, resolved to leave her home behind and hit the road. With dreadlocks for pigtails and a rucksack instead of a pinafore, Star is a new Dorothy, with the sales team her broken friends seeking completion. Krystal’s shimmering outfits and casual cruelty make her the wicked witch. Jake is both a companion and the cyclone, whisking Star into a new world. The closest she comes to returning home, however, is finding a place just like it, an emerald-painted house where the neglected children of an addict mother play unsupervised and the fridge is all but empty. It’s something at least. Her peers in the van, who spend their money on booze and drugs as fast as they earn it, are still circling as the film closes.

If American Honey has a message it is that dreams are always out of reach. Arnold’s cut-in shots of butterflies, birds and bugs failing to take flight reinforce the feeling that something is keeping these young Americans down. Only Star pauses to set the bugs free. And her essential virtue, taking care of neglected children and dreaming of a trailer and family of her own, distinguishes her from her fellow travellers, chasing paper money down the highway. Within a glittering collage of soaring music, soft light and writhing bodies, this brilliant film draws the outline of a bleak economic landscape.

 

  • Sight & Sound: the November 2016 issue

    Sight & Sound: the November 2016 issue

    David Oyelowo and the crisis of black British film stars: a Black Star special issue. Plus Ken Loach’s excoriating I, Daniel Blake, Robert Aldrich...

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