Vivacious and free spirited, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a picture that always keeps moving, although you never quite know where it will take you next. Emphasizing mood over plot and capturing a specific milieu, this is one of the most energetic and best films I’ve seen this year.
As the film opens, we meet Star (newcomer Sasha Stone) dumpster-diving with her young siblings in a small Oklahoma town for dinner. But before heading home, where she’ll have to contend with her sleazy father’s groping, Star spots a large group of youths hop out of a van, and observes them dancing to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” in the aisles of a box store.
Star speaks to the leader of the group, a smooth talker named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who attempts to convince her to tag along with the ensemble of teenagers, who flit about the Midwest and go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions. Star is tempted by the amount of fun the group appears to be having and sees the opportunity to get away from her depressing home life.
The following day, she drops off her younger siblings with her mother, who appears to be only slightly more responsible than her father, and flees town with Jake and company, who are a ragtag group of tattooed young men and women who like to party, sing along to trap music and spend a decent amount of time barely clothed. Their fearless leader is the hard-nosed Krystal (Riley Keough), who appears suspicious of Star and the apparent attraction she holds for Jake, Krystal’s top seller.
Much like Larry Clark’s controversial nineties classic Kids, Arnold’s film takes a naturalistic approach with acting that feels less like performances than merely hanging out with a group of kids. On the other hand, while Star and her newfound friends occasionally throw caution to the wind and engage in all manner of wild behavior, this film isn’t as hopeless as Clark’s vision. While this film’s characters – especially Star – may need a change of scenery and some new perspective on life, they’re not exactly lost.
The film may be light on story, but it still feels as if a fair amount takes place during its two-hour-and-45-minutes running time. Jake teaches Star, an occasionally stubborn pupil, the ropes of selling magazine subscriptions by reading her customers and finding out what they want. Each of the other members of the group have their own distinct personalities: there’s a guy who likes to spend a significant portion of his time nude, a shy girl who is obsessed with Darth Vader, a skater, a young man who plays guitar and a tough-talking girl who dresses like a boy.
There are several particularly effective scenes that could be their own short films, including a fairly suspenseful one in which Star agrees to a paid date with a man who works in the oil fields and another in which she visits the home of two young children whose mother is passed out due to drug use on the couch in front of the TV. But rather than push the film’s narrative forward, these sequences are powerful because they set the scene for the type of hard knock lives that Star and her friends lead.
Although the picture’s naturalistic aura gives the proceedings an almost a freeform vibe, “American Honey” ends with a lovely sequence that could best be described as symbolic, and includes a rebirth, of sorts. Star and her friends may not know where they’ll end up, but she finds a certain freedom in the fact that – as the song goes – she’ll keep on moving / don’t stop.
Arnold, whose previous films include a unique reimagining of Wuthering Heights and Fish Tank (another movie centering on troubled youths), has created a stunning portrait of young people who – as one character puts it – have never been asked what their dreams are and, while they may not know the answer, are pretty sure that it involves moving forward.
Watch the trailer for American Honey: