'American Honey': A British Filmmaker’s Take on the American Road Trip

In 'American Honey,' starring Shia LaBeouf and breakout talent Sasha Lane, a group of young dropouts play the capitalist game.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Riley Keough (left) and Shia LaBeouf in 'American Honey.'
Riley Keough (left) and Shia LaBeouf in 'American Honey.'Credit: Courtesy
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

It’s hard to recall another director whose work has taken as extreme a leap as that of the British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, whose new movie, “American Honey,” is her fourth feature. After winning an Oscar in 2003 for her short film, “Wasp,” she made two movies in her homeland – “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” – that seemed to place her squarely in the tradition of British realistic cinema. She then released a rough-hewn adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” yet another realistic film that distanced itself from the many romantic film and television versions of Emile Bronte’s novel (and even dared to portray Heathcliff as a native of the Caribbean).

There was something closed, even uptight, about Arnold’s three previous pictures, even if “Fish Tank” traversed the ugly landscapes adjacent to the Essex slum in which the film was set, and “Wuthering Heights” showed the rugged terrain of Yorkshire, without which the portrayal of the love story between Cathy and Heathcliff is impossible. But in this movie the insularity gives way to openness, and the narrative structures that hemmed in the protagonists of her earlier films burst out in all directions.

This happens in Arnold’s first film that’s set in America, and one that operates within one of the most American of genres, the road movie. She has populated it with a diverse collection of young people who share the journey, and stretched it out to 162 minutes, though it seems to lack the plot base to justify that length. “American Honey” creates the feeling that, just as it could have been shorter, it could also have been even longer; as though the duration of the events depicted in it and the viewing time are fluid. Indeed, this feeling is thematically significant in the movie: The characters are constantly moving, but seem to be going nowhere.

Though a road movie set in the American Midwest with a seemingly minimalist plot, an episodic structure and a running time of almost three hours would appear to be the most radically different picture Arnold could have made, compared with her previous films, it’s not. Despite the change of locale, narrative structure and style, “American Honey” in many senses connects naturally to the director’s earlier work.

That connection is seen, to begin with, in the fact that the new film, like the others, has a woman at its center. Furthermore, even though it is set outside Arnold’s native land, it paints a tough social and class portrait of the reality amid which it unfolds.

Fashioning an identity

The 18-year-old protagonist is Star (played by Sasha Lane who exudes a powerful screen presence, even though she had no previous acting experience when Arnold discovered her), who lives in conditions of poverty and abuse. A chance meeting with a young man named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) lights a romantic spark between the two. He persuades her to abandon her two younger siblings, whom she was looking after, and to join him and a group of young people.

Traveling together in a white van, they make occasional stops to try to sell magazines to affluent Midwest suburbanites, and even to residents of trailer camps who barely have enough money to feed their families. The manager of this business is Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), who is no older than her employees. With her gaudily cheap exterior, she runs things with a toughness that fuses the comic and the harrowing.

Jake teaches Star the tricks of the trade, in which anything goes in the effort to sell potential subscribers magazines in which they have no interest. The plot follows the group’s travels through the states that comprise the American Midwest and their efforts to fulfill their business goal. A key theme is Star’s integration into the group, the way she gets to be an accomplished player of the rules of the game, and her maturation in the course of the journey. One of the film’s subtleties lies in the fact that it’s precisely by integrating into the group that Star is able to fashion her own independent identity.

A particularly interesting facet of “American Honey” lies in its depiction of young people who are dropouts from the established American society yet are not in the least rebellious. On the contrary: They are up to their necks in the capitalist game of sell, sell, sell, and the selling, with its obligatory strategems and tricks, affords them as much enjoyment as the journey itself, with its camaraderie and shared fun. Each of these young people seems to be a misfit who has no chance of becoming part of the established system and of realizing the American dream that spurs them on. At the same time, they are trapped within the system, even if it has nothing to offer them. Hence the sense of nullity that suffuses the film even at its most fervent moments.

Through all this, Star’s intensity shines through; she is like a spotlight that illuminates her surroundings. Seemingly, there is no difference between her and the others. But in practice, her emerging independence is the result of her awareness of the ease with which she, too, can fall into the trap that the journey and its capitalist essence hold out for her. She recognizes that the freedom the road trip and its participants represent for her is characterized by conformism that is posing as its opposite.

Even if not everything works in Arnold’s film, and the boldness that permeates it sometimes morphs into a feeling of arrogance, as often happens with what is perceived as cinematic daring, it’s a work that stirs interest and also esteem. “American Honey” pulses with a cinematic energy to which the viewer responds, even when it starts to become tiresome. But whenever the movie seems to be on a treadmill, vitiated by a certain meagerness, the richness at its core is revealed again – if not in the next scene, then in the one after it.

American Honey Written and directed by Andrea Arnold; with Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes

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