AMERICAN HONEY. Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough. Directed by Andrew Arnold. 164 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong coarse language, sex scenes and nudity).
For her fourth feature film, British writer-director Andrea Arnold turned her attention away from the UK for the first time, setting the action in the American Midwest. The resulting picture won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year (essentially the bronze medal), and it is certainly worthy of this prestigious plaudit. It is intimate and engrossing, dynamic yet contemplative, offering a peek into the lives of young people who feel intensely real. Part travelogue, part relationship drama, part flashy music video, ‘American Honey’ is a restless exploration of what it means to be young and adrift in today’s America.
Star (Sasha Lane) is a teenager stuck in Oklahoma with no family, no home and no future in sight. She lives with an older man, whom Americans would readily label ‘white trash’, doing her makeshift best to care for his two young children and begrudgingly sharing his bed. One day, while Star is rummaging for food through the bins of a supermarket with the kids, a van overflowing with lost teens like herself pulls up, led by the magnetic Jake (Shia LaBeouf) who offers her a job selling magazines door-to-door. She quickly accepts, and hits the road with his motely group who are on their way to Kansas City.
The camera lingers on Star as she gazes at Jake, each pause expounding her attraction to him - it’s clear that she was partly drawn to the job offer by her chemistry with him. In Kansas, she is given her work packet – magazine brochures, payment and delivery slips – by Krystal (Riley Keough), the leader and manager of their little tribe. When travelling between cities, Krystal doesn’t join them in the bus, instead being driven by Jake in her flashy white coupé. The audience sees it coming, but it’s a shock to Star when Jake turns out to possibly be less exclusively entranced by Star than their first interactions made out.
The members of the magazine crew form a scrappy family, bonded by their tattooed bodies often in various dishevelled states of undress, their near permanent forms of drunkenness or drug highs. It’s never glorified by the film – if anything, the vignettes sprawling across the countryside make it appear somewhat exhausting – but its allure to someone like Star is clear; an improvised family, a place to belong and a secure job all within a carefree lifestyle founded upon the freedom of the open road. Their troupe splits off into pairs every day, canvassing neighbourhoods for potential customers. As the best seller in the group, Jake takes Star out to teach her his own tactics, primarily a chameleonic willingness to become whomever the person opening a knocked door wants him to be – an impoverished student, a Christian fundraiser, a flirtatious lothario. She resents what she perceives as his lies, and during the ensuing argument they exchange their first kiss, sprawled on the grass beneath the indifferent shower of a network of lawn sprinklers.
Sasha Lane is wonderful in her debut film role, vibrant and warm, yet difficult to entirely read and occasionally prickly. Her Star carries the burden of knowing her inevitably lowly place in the world, but inhabits each joyful moment before the time comes to accept her fate. Opposite her, Shia LaBeouf continues his streak of fascinating indie roles, and though I have seen some notices labelling his turn as ‘scenery chewing’, I was utterly convinced. The magnetism that he carries as a star (though he would likely suggest ‘former star’) imbues the character with an aura to which the other youths gravitate – he is every part their friend but also their superior. Riley Keough’s relative celebrity works similarly in her turn as the believably intimidating Fagan to their orphans, consciously painting over her Hollywood glamour with more of a ‘white trash’ chic (Confederate flag bikini and all). The other teens in Krystal’s crew are non-actors, pulled off streets and parking lots and construction sites, and their naturalism works well to ground Star’s journey in a believable setting.
As Jake and Star become increasingly close, and their company covers more territory hawking their wares, the ambiguity that haunts their relationship grows, until its presence fills every corner of DP Robbie Ryan’s squarish 4:3 compositions. Andrea Arnold has clearly asked for realism from her crew, and Ryan’s camerawork is easy and intimate, using natural lighting to exquisite effect, particularly at dusk and dawn. Elsewhere, each scene of the crew travelling in their van blends a handful of overlapping conversations, and the music to which the crew soundtracks their lives is a throbbing hodgepodge of today’s rap scene.
In the end, their life has an almost spine-tingling freedom and indifference. Arnold has captured a slice of life that could have been lifted from someone’s real existence (albeit a weighty, 164-minute slice). You walk away knowing that there probably is a Star out there and that she has a tough life ahead, but for now we can just ride along with her, easily removed but impossibly invested. I hope she makes it.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 3.