We first meet eighteen year-old Star (Sasha Lane) in rural Oklahoma, dumpster diving at a run-down K-mart, with a pair of small children in tow. Later, we learn that the children are not related to her, though she looks after them, and her home life is a miserable, untenable situation. It's time for Star to leave. So she falls in with a band of itinerant youngsters who travel by van throughout the American Midwest, hawking overpriced magazine subscriptions for their team leader Krystal (Riley Keough). Star is initially recruited by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who flirts with her and trains her in the art of conning and grifting her way to success.
"American Honey" is the first film from Andrea Arnold set outside the UK, and it retains all the raw style and lyrical realism of her prior films. You won't find many beauty shots of the landscape, but there are plenty of intimate moments in overcrowded vans, evocative glimpses of life on the road, and a transcendant sing-along or two. The cast is a strong mix of professional actors and non-professionals. Arnold reportedly cast newcomer Sasha Lane after running across her on a vacation, and other members of the magazine crew were found in parking lots and construction sites. Together, they form an eclectic, lively band of outcasts and misfits, always causing some kind of commotion, always living on the brink. They spontaneously start dancing in the K-mart where Star first sees them, and the ending revolves around a celebratory bonfire that the kids take turns dancing and leaping over. It's easy to see what draws Star into their circle.
And through Star's journey with the crew, Arnold explores the American landscape like so many of the great foreign filmmkers before her. Despite our heroine revealing very little about her background, we learn plenty about Star as she grapples with new circumstances and new choices. She resists lying to people or tricking them into sales. She's very good at getting herself out of bad situations, and proves scrappy enough to survive on her own. However, she isn't quite worldly enough to understand that having a connection with Jake doesn't mean she's not also one of his marks. Sasha Lane wordlessly conveys so much, giving Star a lot of charisma and raw intelligence. She's also, notably, one of the only cast members of color in a sea of white faces. This is also my favorite performance from Shia LaBeouf, whose recent bounts of oddity mesh perfectly with the tone of "American Honey," where to be odd and out of place may be synonymous with being free.
Really, though, it's America that is the star of the film, specifically all the depressed, abjectly poor, yet hopeful parts of it that rarely find their way to the big screen. Though nature occasionally makes itself known, the film spends the bulk of its time in motels, parking lots, and run-down apartments. I'm tempted to liken Arnold's work here to Harmony Korine's earlier grotesqueries, but Arnold's work is more celebratory, more sympathetic and humane. She lets Star call out the hypocrisy of a wealthy suburbanite, enjoy the comaraderie of her fellow fringe-dwellers, and have her moments of triumph and joy. Star has real agency over her life, which is vital. And while some have complained of the film's two-and-a-half hour length, I enjoyed all of Star's various misadventures, and the chance to really become immersed in her world. If the film is overlong, at least it's ambitious and entertaining all the way through.
There's a strong temptation to want to read political messages into the film, which is essentially about a group of forgotten, con-artist kids with no safety net and no prospects trying to find their way in crumbling middle America. However, the film is more interested in conveying an experience than a message, and tends to treat the social ills it encounters very matter-of-factly. It's hardest on the individual characters and the choices that they make. For instance, "American Honey" is bookened by two encounters that Star has with broken families, which highlight her best and worst impulses. And it leaves her with a long ways left to go on her journey.
But I leave you to discover that for yourselves.