Originally published on May 14, 2016. American Honey is now available through Amazon Prime’s Instant Streaming Service.
Overview: A teenage girl joins a group of travelling magazine salespeople; A24/Focus Features; 2016; 162 Minutes.
The Crew: Andrea Arnold’s 162-minute road trip movie is an absolute joyride through the American Midwest, brimming with the spontaneity and energy of modern youth. American Honey follows Star, portrayed with a naked vulnerability from newcomer Sasha Lane. With no responsible parents and two siblings under her care, she finds an easy escape as a member of a door-to-door magazine sales troupe. She becomes smitten with Jake, the star-salesman who recruited her and another extremely committed performance from Shia Laboeuf. The rest of the ensemble cast bears generally unknown faces (with the possible exception of Arielle Holmes, who appears after her breakthrough in last year’s Heaven Knows What). The crew don somewhat despicable personas yet their arrogance and unruliness are spun by Arnold into a noble and charismatic camaraderie.
With an ear-pounding and contemporary yet somehow still nostalgia-inducing score of pop, EDM, and occasional country songs, the film always feels electric and wild. And despite all the ruckus and all of the obviously terrible decisions the characters make, Arnold never displays a desire to pass judgment with her film. Instead, with sympathetic frames caught by warm hues, she chooses to be intimate, sort of validating the oft-criticized millennial lifestyle.
The Culture: The film understands aimlessness and explores the relationship of that numb spiritual condition with the American Dream. When asked about their ambitions in life, the individual characters always acknowledge the existence of these dreams, but their language is never committal. Arnold also surprisingly captures the patriotism of a nation and its youth, again breaking stereotype by encouraging within her characters the idealism and the bravery of visionaries. The film finds these atypically-explored characteristics in these unlikely characters through Arnold’s nearly unfathomable sense of understanding.
The Energy: The first half of the film flies by with perfectly unrelenting pacing. The length is a bit more felt in the second half as it becomes impossible to come to terms with the idea leaving the aloof world which Arnold has crafted. The wholeness of the picture, all in all, is so rejuvenating, so electrifying, that it leaves the viewer in a trance-like state of meditation that one half consciously clings to like youth itself.
The Portraiture: Arnold and Cinematographer Robbie Ryan exhibit a knack for using sunlight to their advantage in their portraiture of these youths, emphasizing their place among the natural aspects surrounding them. Amidst the skyscrapers of Kansas City and the oil rigs of Nebraska, we see them bonding with the environment that their generation’s population might soon destroy. This effortless bond with nature mirrors the connectedness of the group and Star’s quick assimilation into it.
Ryan’s cinematography is some of the best on display in the 2016 Cannes festival so far. His camera is kinetic yet focused. In the more elliptical sequences, Ryan, who also acted as the cinematographer on I, Daniel Blake, creates a dreamy atmosphere, one that completely stupefies with light and montage. It is in these stretches of the audience’s heightened senses and visual euphoria that Star submits herself to volatility. Every element of this film seamlessly and comfortably lends to the other. The story, the film, and the lives of its subjects pause only occasionally to allow incomplete retrospection.
Overall: American Honey is a rapid fire dream and a truly cinematic experience.