American Honey is a film that occupies the open road. But this is a term that is much less glamorous than it sounds. In parking lots, gas stations, superstores, and trailer parks, the movie brings meaning to the empty and pointless spaces of America. It does so by focusing in on those simple details that construct lived-in moments. Whether it is a simple touch on the leg or a smirk that you want to trust, the film makes you think that you are there.
When we first meet Star (played by Sasha Lane), she is a young and lost girl who wants to leave behind the brutal reality of her day-to-day life in a dead-end town in Oklahoma—struggling with an abusive situation at home while attempting to care for her two younger siblings. When she meets Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf), he offers an opportunity to hit the road and join a traveling magazine sales crew. There’s a promise of wealth, but as the layers of that promise are removed, we return to a reminder of the previous reality, in a dead-end town in North Dakota. In between, Sasha struggles with her romantic feelings for Jake, her failure as a traveling salesperson, and dealing with the debauchery of the crew of salespeople with whom she traverses the country. It’s a classic setup: the novice joins the motley crew and is initiated into a new way of life, drastically different from what came before.
The Midwest—a forgotten, yet often invoked part of America—is the backdrop for the group’s wanderings. As a road trip movie, it’s all about movement. The gang of kids fly through the landscapes all looking for something. Around them, everyone seems to be moving. This usually means upwards, in the get-rich-quick oil fields of North Dakota, or the upper-middle class of Kansas City, or forward, as the trains and airplanes scream by their white van. The film allows you to witness an exhilarating piece of Americana. As always, it isn’t pretty, but it’s just a bit hopeful.
The soundtrack of the film is chock-full of contemporary rap and R&B hits which convincingly (at least for this young writer) evoke the popular music of the present moment, while also somewhat justifying their own appeal even to the most “square” moviegoer. Despite their heavy-hitting beats and profanity-laced lyrics, the message of the songs is the optimistic, successful, sexy dream every one of these salespeople is desperately trying to realize throughout the movie.
American Honey asks Lane’s Star to be its emotional centerpiece, and she proves herself more than up to the task: her performance is confident, naturalistic, and brimming with the explosive energy of youth the film seeks to celebrate and contemplate. LeBeouf brings his now-typical brand of immersive, bizarre acting to the table, to great effect. Everyone in this movie is a little crazy, and LeBeouf knows how to be crazy while also being compelling, which is a delight.
Since premiering in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it eventually won the Jury de Prix, American Honey has garnered an outpouring of critical acclaim for director Andrea Arnold and has been praised as a testament to the youth of today. Granted, it’s a long testament—clocking in at two hours and forty minutes—but the film’s length ultimately proves to be a strength: despite a few lulls, the pacing is sharp, and the vignettes are always interesting. At times, the movie goes for surprising switches of tone – a lighthearted barbecue that Star stumbles upon starts as the movie’s happiest scene but then becomes one of its darkest – but mostly, the emotional landscape changes gently, like the view through the window on the open road, allowing you to process the contour of a mood before gradually showing you another. And like anyone who has taken a long road trip knows, sometimes you return to where you started without returning to the same place, because the way you see is different, and so the place is different, and that is how you know you have changed.
—Paul Lindseth and Ryan Fajardo