American Honey (2016) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse-all involving teens
Running Time: 163 min.
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes, Will Patton
Director: Andrea Arnold
Screenplay: Andrea Arnold
Review published December 23, 2016
It's the first film written and directed by Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights, Fish Tank) in the United States, based upon an article from a New York Times article written in 2007 exploring the phenomenon of magazine crews comprised of teens and young adults who travel together as a unit to go out and hock magazine subscriptions door to door. These young men and women say what's necessary to get the sale from people who might otherwise have no interest in the products they are purchasing, but who feel a sympathy for the hard-luck story or worthy cause that the solicitor invents in order to stoke the flame of interest.
Sasha Lane (her debut) plays Star, an eighteen-year-old woman who ends up running away from her life of bleak opportunities to join a mag crew, which is a team of wayward youths who've pooled together to sell magazines door to door in various cities and states in order to earn a few extra dollars for themselves and the rest of the organization that funds their meals and boarding. The stipulation before joining is that no one will miss her, which is certainly the case for Star, who we meet early on dumpster diving for discarded food to feed herself and the two children in her care. Things seem hopeful for her future after meeting the top seller in the mag crew, the charismatic and street-smart Jake (LaBeouf, Fury), with whom she has an instant bond of attraction that compels her to pursue this avenue fully. Star, who essentially grew up without much of a family to speak of, now finds a new support system among others in a similar situation, but she is a bit naive to the big bad world around her. Is this new path to Star's life enough to sustain her for long?
Very nice, fine-tuned (and mostly improvised) performances are the highlight, with a captivating central turn from Sasha Lane, who was literally pulled in off of the street for her look and demeanor by Arnold, who wanted to find a raw and untapped talent for the role of Star. It does help that she gets to play off of skilled professional actors like Shia LaBeouf, who gets lost yet again in another method performance, as well as Elvis Presley's granddaughter, Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road), who is both alluring and fierce as Krystal, the stern and manipulative ringleader of the mag crew, playing bad cop to Jake's good one. As for the rest, like Lane, they are mostly comprised of non-professional actors, and some even have experience with being in a mag crew, adding an extra level of authenticity to the production that allows us to take the story as if it were a pseudo-documentary.
The film, which sprawls over a very liberal run time of two hours and forty-three minutes, isn't what anyone would call dense in terms of plotting and story, but it is still a very rich film in terms of drawing out acute characterizations, as well as some interesting thematic material. The scene involving Star connecting her eyes with a stranger, who ends up being Jake, and then them finally meeting up with each other in a K-Mart as Jake dances on a checkout stand counter to Rihanna/Calvin Harris' "We Found Love" (with its additional lyric of "in a hopeless place" -- the first of many instances in the film of youth connecting to one another through songs that describe their mind states), is very telling of one theme about how they are find love within this temple of capitalism -- a box store -- foreshadowing the money-for-merchandise life they would soon lead together under the notion of sticking with it for the hope of continued romantic pursuit. They couldn't care less about the magazines they hock, or the people they hock to, but their combined effort together allows them the connections they might otherwise be missing, as well as the passion and the meaning in their lives they may be experiencing for the very first time, abovr and beyong the money, camaraderie, and feeling that, for once, they belong and have value to someone in this world.
In another way, one could read into this pyramid scheme of a group they have going that it's a microcosm of American capitalism, with the boss reaping most of the financial rewards of the workers beneath her, claiming that she deserves their money and more for allowing them food and a place to sleep for the night. The ones who earn the least are scapegoated into being penalized, often physically harmed, for not bringing home as much cash as the others, much like the poor in our society are often victimized as loafers who don't deserve to be supported by the rest of the group because they are lazy or not skilled enough to earn their keep.
Or in yet another light, it's the allure of the American myth, one can see the capitalism effect spilling over into American politics as well, as politicians, much like the sales team in this film, have to get a read for the people on who it is that they are looking for, and to try to instantly be that person. It's pure coincidence, as most of American Honey had been filmed in 2015, but it is remarkable to think that the American people did elect a salesman to be the so-called leader of the free world in Donald Trump, a man whose very essence for the last 40 years is to sell himself and his brand, whether hotels, casinos, clothes or steaks. Like Jake, he read what the American people wanted, and he became that, at least in word if not in deed, and sold an image and spun a narrative to enough people in enough swing states to find himself the next American president.
American Honey would go on to win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2016, which gives Arnold, who evokes the legend of Terrence Malick and the more tempered examination of youth than Harmony Korine, the very impressive distinction of winning that award three times in only four eligible films to date. This is a reflective film, in which the viewer has to derive his or her own meaning on what the film is about to a large extent, so it may not work for more mainstream viewers who expect a clearly defined narrative structure and a forward-moving plot that resolves neatly by the end.
However, sometimes it is the journey that is more enjoyable than the destination, and while it does run much longer than some might think necessary (though it does effectively capture the boring and confining nature of life in a van always on the road), it is always watchable just to become lost in the rhythmic lives of these young men and women, shot beautifully by cinematographer Robbie Ryan in the currently less common Academy (1.37:1) aspect ratio, and to explore the strange odyssey of their travels across the heartland of America. Alhtough it is about common people often overlooked in Hollywood stories, it takes an uncommon filmmaker to realize the riches held within each one of those characters that reside in "fly-over country" that forms the spiritual and geographical backbone of the United States.
©2016 Vince Leo