American Honey has the energy and uniqueness to keep it entertaining from start to finish, but something never quite clicked with its central story.
Star, a young woman taking care of her boyfriend’s two kids, dumpster diving for food, while her man sits around the house getting high and singing with the jukebox. When Star crosses paths with Jake, a “magazine salesman”, something catches both of their eyes in one another and soon she is on the road with Jake and his fellow magazine salesman. Star is enamored with the boy, but she quickly finds out that Jake is the lap dog to the magazine con-artist’s leader, Krystal. Star, Jake, Crystal and crew embark across middle America and you are more or less along for the ride.
Directed by Andrea Arnold, American Honey is loosely put together as we roll around in the van with Star and her co-sellers, often taking stops for Star and Jake to get away together, sometimes to sell, sometimes for something more. Newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star alongside Shia LaBeouf’s Jake and the two have a chemistry that works for part of the time, but I think is overexposed by the end of the film’s second hour. Their maybe romance is kind of at the core of the film and what Star is learning from it. What feels like a realistic slice of life film for 95% of the film reveals itself to have, supposedly, a coming of age film in its final moments, Star baptized and reinvigorated, closer to being a woman, but I am not entirely sure the rest of the film really speaks to that. The romance with Jake gets repetitive rather quickly and Star remains pretty naive and childish throughout it all. The fact that Star just ends up going full circle to her point of realization is also a bit counterproductive to her learning something, but all of that said, Arnold’s final couple moments of the film are extremely affecting.
That is why I am hung up on my overall thoughts on American Honey. Arnold’s craft is impeccable most of the time, as she shoots the hell out of this movie, but that core story was losing me a bit by the end. Part of this might have to do with Sasha Lane’s wavering performance, this is her first film, as she often came across quite amateurish compared to both her professional and fellow newcomer co-stars. The big contemplative moments really fell flat for me and I couldn’t take her seriously on more than one occasion. She has a couple of flashes of greatness rolled in there, but she was definitely out of her league, especially when acting against LaBeouf and Riley Keough, who plays Crystal. Keough is fantastic as the nasty boss floating above everyone else and she does this amazing thing of being powerful while also having a bit of a “not as smart as she thinks she is” edge to her. She’s from the bottom like all of her workers, she’s just barely exuding something a bit more than them. LaBeouf is LaBeouf, great as usual. Slimy, yet irresistible, we get why Star is attracted to his energy and LaBeouf sells you on every step of Jake’s journey.
The real stars of the film are the crew of magazine salesmen and women, well kids, and Arnold’s film is at its best when it is just sitting back and watching these guys live life. There are so many amazing personalities in this group, I missed hanging out with them every time we focused on Star and Jake. And when they really disappear for much of the film’s third act you will notice their absence hurting their film. Maybe Arnold gave us everything she had with these guys, but I wish the distribution of crew time vs. Star & Jake time was a bit more balanced. The scenes with these guys feel alive, like Arnold just came across these guys on the street. They feel more authentic than anything in the film and the highs Arnold hits in some of their scenes make you wish the whole thing was at those levels of greatness. Arielle Holmes is a standout of the magazine crew, constantly quoting Star Wars and sleepwalking through adventures.
American Honey is almost something truly great. Andrea Arnold fills her film with moments of WOW, crafting a film that feels alive, but her star can’t quite sell Star’s journey. Maybe I was too caught up with the crew, maybe Lane was over her head, maybe Arnold put too much on her shoulders, but for the all the second guessing I’m throwing around American Honey is still a film well worth your time. It is unlike any experience I’ve really had in a theater, shortcomings and all.