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The first thing you notice about the tight-knit group of young men and women who are the subject of American Honey is that they are not constantly on their cell phones. In the age of social media, it’s rare to see teenagers just talking, laughing, and singing songs, but these are not your average millennials. They are a crew of traveling magazine salespeople with no permanent home. They live in motels and travel in vans. Yes, they party, do drugs, and screw, but they also share a sense of community sorely lacking in the real world. Director Andrea Arnold’s vision of poverty-stricken American youth neither condemns nor celebrates this much-maligned generation, instead offering them both joy and heartache in reckless respite from their broken lives.
Our eyes to this world is the group’s new recruit: Star (Sasha Lane), put-upon daughter of a creepy, abusive father (or step-father, we’re not quite sure) and surrogate mother to her young siblings (or step-siblings). We first meet her in a dumpster, where she is searching for a chicken to cook for dinner. Later, at a mega-store, she locks eyes with the dangerously effervescent Jake (Shia LaBeouf), just before he gets ejected for dancing on the cashier’s counter. He might as well be dancing on the ceiling. She’s captivated by his freedom, so when he offers her the chance to start over with his group of rollicking youngsters, she jumps at the chance. Having spent much of her life on the street, she knows a dead end when she sees one.
When she jumps in the van full of desperate youths, we go along for the ride. American Honey is an immersive experience, and an intense, distinct vision of contemporary rural life. It takes a little while to learn the rules. Star learns them from Jake, who goes door-to-door with a different story for each potential customer. At one house, he’s selling magazines to put himself through school, and at the next, he’s raising money for his college’s new cafeteria. It’s the best performance yet by the polarizing LaBeouf because it lines up so neatly with his public persona: smart, fast-talking, and dangerously unhinged. Star, of course, falls for him, which puts her in the crosshairs of the big boss, Krystal (Riley Keough), a slightly older girl who runs her group of orphans with casual cruelty of a Dickensian villain. She takes a hefty cut of their pay, pits the week’s lowest earners against each other in vicious fights, and, of course, forbids fraternization among her recruits.
In this vicious world, you keep waiting for something horrible to happen to Star, as she increasingly places herself at the mercy of strange, brutish men. She suffers a few scars but never quite comes face to face with the monster we’re expecting. That’s because American Honey isn’t a morality tale, and there are no boogeymen in fever dreams, only in nightmares. Impressively, Arnold has crafted something more wild and ambiguous, aided by a quietly powerful performance at the film’s center. As Star, Lane is so still on camera you almost forget she’s there, which makes her a perfect vehicle for us to explore the mad world around her.
Where you might get tripped up in figuring American Honey out is in thinking that it has something important to say about poverty in America. The title suggests an overarching thesis, but the film is free of judgment to be defined by its social comment. It’s an important cultural document but not a political one. American Honey is bigger—and better—than that.
American Honey opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.