Review — “American Honey”
We start off this road epic watching Star (Sasha Lane, in her first acting role) digging through the trash with two younger siblings, finding what they want to eat for dinner, then follow her as she quickly becomes entranced by a group of misfits led by a dreamy, rat-tailed Jake (played by Shia LaBeaouf in one of his greatest performances to date), only to be brought back down to reality as we witness Star being groped by a father-like figure in her trailer-park home.
I use words like “following” or “watching” or “witnessing” what is going on the screen because that’s exactly how one feels as a viewer of this film — we are always purposefully distanced from the characters and the story. Andrea Arnold, the British-born auteur of such films as Red Road and Fish Tank, brings us a part coming-of-age tale, part road-movie in a documentary-style that creates a sense of hollow intimacy that seems to reflect not only the plot, but the depth of the characters’ goals and aspirations as well.
We follow Star as she joins a group of misfits and cast-aways from society and their families just like herself, as they travel through the South trying to sell magazine subscriptions. It’s clear that this isn’t the thing that really drives or brings together the crew. These are kids that are searching for a purpose, or an excuse to travel and escape the problems of their childhood and current state of being, by living their lives day-to-day. Just as pointless as it is to try to make a real living out of selling subscriptions, so too are their dreams and authenticity to which they interact with one another and their potential customers. There is this sense that the characters are searching for something, but both the audience and the characters themselves are never sure what that exactly is.
This feeling of distance towards the characters and the story created by Arnold is only possibly by the strong performances given by the leading trio of the film. With a majority of the cast being found on the street or at parties by Arnold, there is this real feeling of authenticity given by the performances, but a paradox of what is said, or not said, out of their mouths. Sasha Lane, who leads the film as Star and was found on a beach by Arnold, commands a strong performance that is driven simply by her actions more than her words. Her growing love interest in Jake, played by LaBeouf, creates further tension and another reason to question why it is these characters continue on the beaten path selling magazines. Jake tries to teach Star about the ways in which to tap in to a role in order to sell a story to people — a story and role that Star feels uncomfortable with. As Jake is constantly okay with being inauthentic in order to sell, Star uses her innocence in order to sell, to the point where she blurs the line between selling her authenticity or selling her sexual innocence. This comes to full fruition in what is the pinnacle scene of the film, as Star jumps in the back of a car with three cowboys, ten-gallon hats and all, on their way to a cowboy bbq full of mescal and possible sexual innuendos and encounters. While Star gets money for subscriptions and winning drinking bets, the audience is never clear whether or not these men are, or will, take advantage of her.
The struggle between the authentic and inauthentic is a common thread playing out in the film. The storyline of selling magazines, and the way in which they sell them, play out this level of inauthenticity initially, as creating a story and character is more important than selling the product, or the truth. To add to this, the love-story between Jake and Star seems inauthentic as well. Are they truly in love with each other, or caught in the moment as all young love is? Or is Jake simply playing another level of his “character” in order to gain more people for the sales team? Jake too is forced to play a power dynamic with Krystal, who is arguably the greatest screen presence, played by Riley Keough. Krystal not only asserts her power over the group as the matriarch of the sales team, but also asserts her power over Jake in front of Star in order to show her sexual power and freedom over others. Jake and Star seem like the typical lovers that can never find a chance to be together, only driven and brought together by the same hollow dream that will probably never be fulfilled.
This hollowness is only further emphasized by the lack of a true narrative in the film. Yes, we do follow the sales team in their white van across America, but there never seems to be a reason why one vignette is attached to another, nor are we really given details about a story, the characters and their thoughts, or a definitive ending. There is this constant feeling one gets as they watch this film that something feels incomplete or left out, but still ever-drawn to the film until the last frame. We wonder if we are witnessing in the American youth the hollowness of the American Dream, the tension between selling your soul and the religious zeal of earning money and planning our futures, the hollowness of living in our Now and the generation that grew up in this mindset, and much more. And yet, even though we feel unfulfilled as the film ends, one cannot help but wish they too were partying and traveling with the group, passing joints and listening to trap music day-by-day.