A teenage girl with nothing to lose joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits.
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writer: Andrea Arnold
Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, McCaul Lombardi
Twice, during Andrea Arnold’s rapturously scuzzy road movie American Honey, Rihanna and Calvin Harris grace the soundtrack with “We Found Love”, their euphoric 2011 dance-floor smash that invites you to drop everything, get high and lose yourself. It’s first heard over the tannoy in an Oklahoma Walmart, where main characters Star (Sasha Lane) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) clap eyes on each other, while the latter’s crew of wasters, waifs and strays grab provisions up and down the aisles.
Not long into the song, Jake is using one of the checkouts as a podium, and security have to show this peacocking punk the exit.
Two hours later, it’s also the chosen track for Star and her new friends, as they roll up to an oil-field in their people carrier. It’s bold of Arnold to repeat the song, which is already such an on-the-nose choice lyrically – “we found love in a hopeless place” could practically be this film’s poster tagline. But it’s her characters who are picking the playlist. Just try and stop them.
The hopeless place is not just a Walmart, and the love is complicated: yes, it’s the kind between Star and Jake, who tumble into a sort of outlaw intimacy, but also between an abused teenage girl and the open road. Not to mention a director and her medium. Arnold – whose first two films, Red Road and Fish Tank, were widely acclaimed – seemed to have stalled creatively after her heavy-going 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights – and arguably even during it. This project has re-energised her entire approach to film-making, with its largely non-professional cast, whose raw vitality blazes a trail across the Midwest.
Like Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, Lane is a magnetic newcomer, as are almost all the actors playing Star’s dozen or so companions. Her life in Oklahoma is a brilliantly sketched dead end – in the first scene, she’s seen fishing a formerly-frozen chicken from a bin and throwing it down to the two young children (not hers) in her care.
Jake makes a proposal while they are flirting in the Walmart parking lot, and that night Star makes a run for it, leaving everything behind for good, including a gropey so-and-so she needs rid of with particular urgency.
The trip they embark on is so scrappily open-ended that almost anything goes, but it’s the very lack of a rigid narrative structure that makes this such an electrifying experience for the viewer. Arnold’s right-hand man, the prodigious Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, is almost incapable of a dull shot, but even by his standards, the visuals here are extraordinarily dynamic, with colours that pop and burn as incandescently as the soundtrack. His nightscapes are something else, the nocturnal trash-heap of the Unites States etched in shivery moonlit hues.
The boss of this raucous outfit is Krystal (Riley Keough, granddaughter of Elvis Presley), a tough-as-nails forewoman who collects the cash, gets a motel room to herself every night, and is not on any account to be messed with. Her stares alone could leave you with skin trauma. As far as she’s concerned, Star’s on probation: it’s Jake who shows her how to play on strangers’ sympathies, by inventing doorstep sob stories to glean money from magazine subscriptions.
LaBeouf, sporting a ratty braided ponytail and plentiful tattoos, gives a striking, vanity-free performance. He may look like he’s in the wilderness of his career here, but it’s a far more interesting environment than he inhabited in his payday years. The sex scenes between him and Lane may not be as brazenly explicit as those he performed in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, but they’re far more human and tactile.
American Honey is a wind-through-your-hair sort of picture with, you might argue, too many literal shots of wind going through hair, as this posse hitch rides to and fro, devoting their days to a door-to-door sales mission before rendezvousing nightly and resuming the party. You could also argue that this almost intentionally exhausting film is too much of a good thing. But there’s amazingly little of it you’d want to live without.
Arnold has managed something remarkable in scouring roadside America for this project – mainly because she’s chosen to bring up the dirt, a bit like the great photographer William Eggleston did in his famous shots of Memphis parking lots and discarded toys. She wants to show us youth in revolt, and pleasure-seeking as a design for life. But she also takes us right into the unwashed armpit of flyover country and, in that most hopeless place, finds love.
– Tim Robey, The Telegraph