American Honey adores its lead performer more than any film I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s not too hard to see why. Actress Sasha Lane has a complexion like Nora Jones’, dreadlocks, a full upper lip, and a quizzical, steely gaze that cracks open up with beguiling half-smirks. She has an alluring utopian aspect. Her indiscriminate features might be commonplace in a perfectly post-racial world. The camera seeks her out with delicate passion, like it’s catching a butterfly, juggling her into loose framings, following in handheld tracking shots that she dodges with ease and dexterity.
Lane isn’t the only thing about American Honey that’s captivating and elusive. The movie, from writer-director Andrea Arnold, follows Lane’s waif protagonist, Star, on a strange but arresting odyssey across the American Midwest. Her companions are rambunctious teenaged traveling-salesmen packed into a white van like hip-hop sing-along sardines. Arnold’s film may be long and shapeless, a journey without a destination, yet it’s redeemed, to an amazing extent, by its charm, verisimilitude and sparkling vivacity. It plumbs the depths of America’s young heart(land) with the candor and verve of On The Road meets Kids meets Oliver Twist.
While her background remains mysterious, 18-year-old Star lives in Oklahoma where she looks after two younger children whose father is a sleazy groper. One day, in a K-Mart parking lot, she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a vagabond hipster smoothie who wears a rattail braid and dirty wife-beaters beneath suspenders and pinstripe slacks. Attracted by his offbeat handsomeness and breezy charisma, Star agrees to abandon her current life to join his posse of hard-partying, dub-stepping wayward young adults — from everywhere and nowhere — who drive around the country selling magazine subscriptions.
Of course, the movie knows that nobody buys magazine subscriptions anymore. Yet the kids make money anyway. So what, exactly, are they selling? Star quickly learns that they’re basically hucksters who spin yarns about being the children of dead servicemen, or broke college hopefuls, or Christians building a church, or whomever. Though she develops her own, more honest methods, Star realizes that anything can be pushed so long as it’s packaged correctly. Going off in pairs to fleece suburban neighborhoods, these junior solicitors seem like they’re selling bibles, when they’re really peddling thin air. American Honey suggests that part of coming-of-age in America is figuring what one can sell and how.
The kids, however, are buying something, too. They have a boss named Krystal (Riley Keogh), a Texas “mean girl”, who could be their cult leader (they echo her galvanizing chants with enough creepy enthusiasm) or their pimp. She rides ahead in a convertible, books motels, collects all the money and doles out enough for food (or dope), while she spends the rest on clothes. Everyone submits to her authority. Those who don’t earn enough are ostracized, we’re told. The kids seem happy having purchased an escape from adult responsibilities, when actually they’re moths circling a flame, their freedom not really freedom, but rather blissful arrested development sheathed in groupthink. Jake is Krystal’s most faithful devotee, spreading lotion over her bare legs with the icky piety of a zealot shining a false idol.
Arnold reserves her own reverence for more primal subjects. Star and Jake begin an illicit affair, and when they get down in a field, the long green blades of grass absorb and embrace them. It looks like the most natural act ever committed. Though the van traverses many cities, suburbs, oil fields, trailer parks and strip malls, the camera captures nature most observantly, from Star’s innocuous encounter with a grizzly bear to the bees and wasps she rescues compassionately from pools and windowsills. The kids wrestle like puppies, dance around bonfires like a tribe, and intone rap songs like indigenous prayers. It’s a Levi’s commercial by way of Lord of the Flies, with Jake’s signature howl the summoning conch.
The rebellious Star stands out from the pack. Only to Jake does she share her hopes of modest maternity, of owning a trailer somewhere with children and trees. He harbors similar domestic desires, or, at least, that’s what he tells/sells her. American Honey lives for, and preys on, those dreams. It’s admittedly inscrutable and aimless (the second half practically begs for some momentous incident to up the ante or alter the course), but Arnold’s film is intoxicating and oddly resonant. It has imagery and rhythms with hypnotic power and thought-provoking themes about conformity, Capitalism, nature and the enduring promise of America. Then it leaves us, wading out into the unknown, amidst the fireflies.