American Honey gives its audience what so many have been asking for from Hollywood. We need more movies centering people of color, more movies centering women, more road movies, more hangout movies, more movies about right now. Director Andrea Arnold and lead actress Sasha Lane rolled all the above into a single celebration of growing up and midwestern highways.
Star, the 18-year-old protagonist whom the film never leaves for the entirety of its nearly three-hour run-time, is caught in the “before” section of her fairytale in the opening scenes. She acts as old sister and caretaker to her younger siblings, scavenging for food with them and rewarding them with Mountain Dew. Arnold immediately diverts Star’s narrative away from victimhood, as Star abandons her abusive home, never to return. American Honey’s about leaving, constantly leaving, to preserve your right to make your own decisions—the heavy-handed but exhilarating score plays E-40’s “Choices (Yup)” in its entirety. Star does everything in the interest of not getting stuck.
The band of young magazine sellers she decides to join based on a particularly inspiring LaBeouf-led dance performance of “We Found Love” don’t individually get many lines, but they’re painted empathetically. There’s Pagan, the Chloe Sevigny lookalike who everyone seems moved to treat kindly, and Corey, who really, really loves showing his dick. Despite their constant drinking and drugging, none of the characters are fools. In many similar slice of life middle America films — Terrence Mallick’s Badlands and Harmony Korine’s Gummo come to mind — the characters who populate “flyover states” tend to make obvious the director’s contempt toward them in the few lines they’re allowed. But Arnold and Lane want us to love everyone we meet; even three cowboys who arrive riding a white convertible have a tenderness to them.
We spend a lot of time with Lane’s Star and LaBeouf’s Jake, and thank God that we do. Lane’s performance’s most remarkable accomplishment is keeping our attention for 163 minutes. Scene transitions are propelled by how badly we sense Star wants to get wherever she’s going. We see the world exclusively through Star, which allows us to fall in love with LaBeouf’s dumb and confident Jake along with her. Watching Jake struggle to figure out what he wants in the face of Star’s directional confidence would be heartbreaking if not for LaBeouf’s boyish appeal assuring us that he’ll always be able to con his way out of trouble. LaBeouf gives a confounding and wonderful performance, at once unsettling, charismatic, predatory and innocent. Still, he’s just a foil for Star, who refuses to slow down even for her potential first love.
Atypical of the “band of misfits” genre, Star never suffers disenchantment, only normalization. She knows instinctively that everyone else’s internal life is just as vivid as hers—“sonder” for those of you who can figure out how to use it in a sentence. Every new character we meet is a little bit less simple and a little bit less ill-willed than other movies teach us. Star’s endless well of empathy allows her to move on again and again, trusting that there will be someone she can connect with and trust at the next pit stop.
It’s a movie about American highways and convenience stores, places where you find yourself wondering about the fellow-travelers surrounding you. It’s a messy movie interested in messiness, but living with Star is propulsive, a reminder to just keep on moving.