American Honey is a singularly vulgar, fascinating slice of Americana. Think the veritable pie cooling on the windowsill. It's an old cliché that calls to mind America, right? "American as apple pie" and all that. But then that pie is left to long to fester and rot, attracting all kinds of gross bugs and insects. And so, American Honey. That's not a facile analogy either, as American Honey's eye is often preoccupied with flies and ants crawling about the place (the places usually being destitute homes and grotty motels). And yet it's often lavishly shot, just a sunlit joy to look at. Its characters are without direction and seemingly devoid of inner life, or, indeed, anything interesting to say. And yet they fascinate for its nearly 3-hour running time.
Writer/director Andrea Arnold is intent on communicating the mundane truth of living day-to-day, in all its hideousness and beauty, rather than sedating and placating with platitudes and well-worn formulas. The result is a complex work of art that invites dissection and analysis, but is okay with you just basking in its rich atmosphere as well. It's highly reminiscent of the French New Wave films of the 60s; movies that weren't dictated by plot contrivances, but were largely concerned with stylistic authenticity and a stark refusal to judge its troubled characters.
Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) is an 18 year old with nothing to lose, living with abusive and neglectful adoptive parents and mired in poverty. She meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a hustler who sells subscription magazines door to door with a band of young adult hobos. From there, Star travels on the open road with them; partying, hustling, and living moment to moment.
Sasha Lane is terrific as Star, inhabiting the starring role with such gusto and fearlessness. Shia LaBeouf, all the while sporting the most terrible hairstyle of all time, is charismatic as ever.
American Honey draws influence from Lana Del Rey and Jack Kerouac. It contains not a reference to either of those artists, and yet its clearly informed by their respective stream-of-consciousness romantic ramblings, and a lurid fascination with the aesthetics of seedier parts of Midwestern America. Kerouac's "I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion" and LDR's lyric "the road is long we'll carry on try to have fun in the meantime" could easily be the mantras for this film. However, unlike Kerouac and his band of intellectual bohemians, the American Honey crew are utterly without pretension or plagued by the existential horror of only meaninglessly hobbling from one moment to the next (Star and Jake are both asked at different points, "what's your dream?" and both are, at first, baffled they'd be asked such a question). And unlike Lana Del Rey, none of them are supernaturally attractive. They're doomed to permanent unloveliness, though American Honey has a measure of affection for them anyway. So did I.