One of the most common title formats in cinema is the “American [fill in the blank]” format, which as far as I can tell goes back at least as far as 1973’s American Graffiti and has been used dozens of times. It may or may not be as common as the “[fill in the blank] Story” format be it’s certainly the more loaded of the two. It’s not a titling convention that’s often used for mellow movies with modest intentions, rather it’s used when you want to make it clear that you’re not merely making a movie about a hustle, or a psycho, or a gangster, or beauty, but are instead making a bold statement about America. The latest film in this tradition is Andrea Arnold’s American Honey which refers not to delicious substance created by bees but to “honey” as a term of endearment to refer to a woman or girl and is also borrowed from a country song that plays late in the film.
The film is set in modern America and centers on a girl named Star (Sasha Lane) who at one point says she’s eighteen but who I sort of suspect is actually supposed to be a bit younger. Star starts the film living in a pretty grim living situation with two rather awful looking parent/guardians. When by chance she runs into a band of other young people traveling through her town she is given the offer to join them and takes it immediately. These young people are part of a “magazine crew” which travels across the country going door to door in various neighborhoods selling magazine subscriptions, often by falsely claiming that the proceeds are for charity. Along the way to these various sales the crew resembles a sort of gypsy convoy of millennial debauchery and partying as the kids spend a lot of time sitting in a van smoking pot and listening to a lot of trap music. The group’s manager is Krystal (Riley Keough), who is slightly older than the rest of the bunch and is initially distrustful of Star and who may or may not be sleeping with her most efficient salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who is also seemingly getting a bit too old to be doing this and has been selected to train Star in the ways of doing these sales.
American Honey is in many ways something of a companion piece to another recent movie, Hell or High Water, in that it’s the work of a British director working in America who is perhaps a bit more interested in doing a cultural/sociological portrait of the American lower class than they are in the story at hand. The difference of course is that Hell or High Water does have a concrete (and somewhat clichéd) crime story to rest on while this film doesn’t have a genre basis and is a lot looser and more episodic in nature. The film was directed by Anrea Arnold, who broke onto the stage of finer filmmaking with her 2009 film Fish Tank, which seemed to place Arnold into the tradition of British Social Realism of the Ken Loach/ Tony Richardson variety with its focus on the under-privileged and its use of non-actors. American Honey would seem to be an attempt to transpose that way of working into an American setting and Arnold reportedly took an extended road trip across the South and Southwest in order to find the “real” American before making the film. On those journeys she found non-actors to cast in her film, including the film’s star Sasha Lane and presumably some of the film’s other actors, who manage to mingle pretty seamlessly with more experienced performers like Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough.
Another recent movie I might be inclined to compare this to is Everybody Wants Some!! in that it is essentially a hangout movie about observing bunch of dumb kids act like dumb kids, albeit very different kids from a different time and without the same nostalgic hindsight. The film is about group of teenagers and early twenty somethings who were clearly not born into privilege and don’t appear to collectively have a lot of education and can seem like rather tacky people from the outside looking in and they can be really wild at times. These people are basically the opposite of what I was like when I was that age given the studious buttoned down lad that I was, in fact they were the kind of people I tended to actively avoid and unlike the dudes in the aforementioned Linklater movie I don’t know that I’d find much common ground to discuss with them if I let my prejudices drop and tried to strike up a conversation with them. And yet, watching them from the safety of a movie theater they aren’t necessarily unpleasant to observe and you do almost start to see something in their youthful energy as they’re setting off fireworks or spontaneously dancing to a Rhianna song.
Andrea Arnold films all this material with conviction and does inject the movie with a lot of energy. I do wish that Arnold would move on from her peculiar obsession with framing her movies in the Academy ratio, but otherwise her work behind the camera does a great job of feeling controlled and kinetic without smothering it. However, the film’s episodic nature will test a lot of viewers and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to lose some patience with it as well. As the film goes on you keep expecting the central character to go through more of a conventional arc and at times it starts to look like her relationship to the Shia LaBeouf will give the film a bit more of a recognizable shape in its back half, but whenever the film seems to be going in more of a plot driven direction it retreats back into slice of life territory. I don’t know that I begrudge this approach exactly and I enjoyed it to a point but I maybe would have liked some sort of slightly more concrete example of what this whole journey means for our protagonist and where she’ll end up as a result. In short, I would have liked an ending. But, as they say, the journey is more important than the destination and this is certainly a solid work of filmmaking any way you cut it.