2016, R, 158 min. Directed by Andrea Arnold. Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Crystal B. Ice, Veronica Ezell, Chad Cox.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 7, 2016
Kids caught between childhood and adulthood, kids who are both victims and exploiters: These are the feral teens on view in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (the title of which comes from a Lady Antebellum song). Arnold (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) has long had a special sensitivity to the plight of young women, and with American Honey this award-winning British filmmaker shifts her focus to girls on the other side of the pond.
Star (Lane, a nonprofessional like most of the kids appearing in this movie) lives a marginal existence. First seen dumpster-diving for food in the film’s opening minutes, Star’s poverty exacerbates her dreary and unhappy home life. All it takes is a casual invitation from Jake (La Beouf), the charismatic leader of a group of teens she runs across in the dumpster’s parking lot, to take a blind leap toward changing the trajectory of her life. "I’m 18," she tells them, without any real conviction. The teens are a group of traveling magazine sales reps, who drive by van from city to city. They go door to door in every new location trying to sell people subscriptions they don’t want. Their employer is Krystal (Keough, truly excellent), a tough ringleader, who keeps Jake as her boy toy and leader of the ground crew. Star is smitten with Jake, who uses his magnetism like a pimp to lure in new sales-team members, and were she not so naive Star would see this as well. These teens all have dreams of living lives better than the ones they’ve escaped, but the nickel-and-dime reality they are presently living is hardly anyone’s dream come true.
There’s no grand plot outline in American Honey, and at two-and-a-half-hours' running time, the film certainly rambles. Yet this approach is well-suited to Arnold’s observational mode of storytelling. Star never reveals her inner thoughts, but they manage to come through to us, nevertheless, through her actions and facial expressions. The abundance of cutaways to insects is an indulgence of Arnold’s, and the film employs too many familiar tropes. Yet Arnold embraces these kids from the social margins with sincere compassion, and her willingness to see them all as Star(s) is the film’s saving grace.