American Honey movie still of Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf

American Honey

American Honey is a poetically heightened slice-of-life road movie framed around a contemporary sub-culture of dispossessed youth. Bleak yet life-affirming.

Review: (rolanstein)
Director Andrea Arnold first came to notice – mine, at least – with the excellent Fish Tank, an uncompromising realist drama set in a grim East London council estate. Anyone who saw Fish Tank will recall the powerful lead performance from actor debutante Katie Jarvis, whom Arnold’s casting agent invited to audition for the part after noticing her arguing with her boyfriend at a train station.

American Honey is a very different film, but there are some similarities with Fish Tank. Again, the focus is on young adults from broken families looking to belong. And Arnold has plucked another young newcomer from obscurity – Sacha Lane – to play the lead character, Star. As with Katie Jarvis, the results are extraordinary. Lane is mesmerizing, playing her challenging role with an authority that is startling in an actor of such limited experience.

Parentless, penniless and directionless, Star lives a joyless day-to-day existence in a small Oklahoma town. She has been left in charge of two children who aren’t hers. They scavenge food from dumpsters and share a dirty dive with a seedy, leering 40-something deadbeat. Star seizes the opportunity to flee her miserable circumstances when the cool and charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), whom she sees skylarking at the local Waltons, invites her to join his troupe of young guys n gals travelling through the Mid-West selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door.

So begins Star’s exciting and adventurous new life on the road. Vanning through mostly flat unremarkable countryside between nondescript towns virtually indistinguishable from each other, the motley high-spirited crew josh and gambol, shout out lines of loud aggro rap, chew on junk snacks, swig spirits and pass the occasional joint. When they hit a town, they are assigned streets to canvas, spinning sob stories and trying all manner of other emotive pitches to convince householders to buy a subscription. At night, they party hard and share cheap motel accommodation – except for cold, bitchy queen bee Krystal (Danielle Riley Keough – eldest grandchild of Elvis and Priscilla Presley), who has a room to herself and her pick of the guys (usually Jake) to share her bed and liquor with.

Krystal has it in for Star, having noted the obvious attraction between her and Jake. Star is not cowered. She’s independent, strong, and reckless. Refusing Jake’s sales mentoring (but not his sexual advances), she prefers to do things her way. Cadging lifts with truckers, cowboys and oil workers, she brings back wads of cash – far more than door-to-door spruiking (or mere magazine subscriptions) might have yielded. She dutifully submits her bounty to Krystal as required, securing her position in the sales team despite her boss’s personal animosity towards her.

Star puts herself in dangerous situations and you keep expecting some terrible fate to befall her. Such is our conditioning as film-goers. However, nothing much happens. American Honey is not about narrative. It’s a poetically heightened slice-of-life piece framed around a sub-culture of youth unhitched from family, set adrift, and denied the American Dream that was once a collective given.

In the most poignant moment of the movie, Star identifies her dream as buying her own trailer. Jake doesn’t have a dream at all, and neither, you sense, do most of the others. They have only the comforts of their own mini-community and sensual gratification – drugs, alcohol, music, sex. And whatever direction the van is heading in.

Running 162 minutes, American Honey is far too long and could have benefited from some judicious – or even injudicious – editing. It’s sprawling, indulgent and has a make-it-up-as-you-go feel to it. However, while it’s not a great movie, it is a significant one.

Indeed, it may just be the Easy Rider of a lost generation of American youth who have slipped through the cracks of a crumbling society. But this is a very different time and a very different youth culture far removed from the 60s era of Fonda and Hopper. The long hair and hippie garb is displaced by tatts and piercings, rocknoll by gangsta rap, and there is no mysticism to the drug-taking. Neither is there any of the romanticism, youthful idealism or bohemianism of road odyssey precedents like Easy Rider or Kerouac’s On The Road.

The young men and women of American Honey aren’t looking for freedom, or America, or themselves, or even kicks. They’re just trying to survive in a country that has no place for them, and make a bit of fun for themselves along the way. Yet life courses through them, despite the bleakness of their circumstances. There is great pathos in that, and in wild flowers like Star, and even love, springing from the most impoverished of soils.

It’s a fair bet that most viewers are going to feel distanced at least and probably alienated from the youth depicted here. I did, and I retain more than a passing interest in youth culture. But something’s going on in the wasteland of American youth, and American Honey gives Mr Jones a glimpse of what it is. It’s bleak, heartbreaking, tragic. But also life-affirming.

American Honey features: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
Writer/Director: Andrea Arnold
Australian release date: 3 Nov 2016 (@ Luna and Event in Perth)

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