Don’t let the title fool you: American Honey is not Shia LaBeouf’s nickname. Named after a Lady Antebellum single to which I was indifferent six years ago, Andrea Arnold’s first American film is stuffed with music, much of it blessed hip-hop like E-40’s “Choices (Yup),” Migos, and Kevin Gates. Also Jeremih. Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” accompanies an important bliss-out moment. Andrea Arnold’s first American film is one of the few in recent years that depicts teenage drift without trying to “understand.” Certainly Arnold is no closer to understanding the mystery of TheBeef, given his best and most awake performance to date while wearing a braided rat tail. The title works: the film has a sweet glow.
Disregard the music and American Honey might’ve been set in 1998. Remember magazines? People still read them, I guess. The kids travel the central United States in jalopies knocking on doors selling subscriptions. Wrestling magazines, cleaning magazines – you name it, they’ve got’em. If they don’t, they’ll hustle you anyway (“People actually buy these anymore?” “Fuck no.”). Jake, the LaBeouf character, is the oldest, the crew’s Ricky Roma, quick with the apt polysyllabic word to assure listeners of his education, expert with well-timed flattery bombs. Star (Sasha Lane), the eighteen-year-old whom the audience sees in the opening sequence dumpster diving for a frozen chicken, is drawn to the kids fooling around in a K-Mart parking lot but particularly Jake. “Everybody wants me,” he assures her. Devoid of options, she joins the crew. She has a sales quota, set by the terrifying Krystal (Riley Keogh), never seen without a bottle of cheap wine in one hand and a half-smoked cigarette but as ruthless about the bottom line as a mid level manager at, well, a K-Mart.
And that’s about it. Jake and Star begin a peripatetic love affair, responsible for the most convincing male orgasm I’ve seen in years for which I’m reluctant to give TheBeef credit. Under the precise eye of Robbie Ryan, a cinematographer whom Guy Lodge correctly praises as a sorcerer of light, American Honey follows Star and the crew through Kansas City, Nebraska, and points north and west. Arnold judges no one. At the home of a fundamentalist Christian momentarily taken in by Jake’s pitch, Arnold uses deep focus to show her daughter and her pals by the pool executing a dance routine to Ciara’s “Ride”; they look like teen versions of the zonked nude hippies in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye but looked at without sourness and as a part of the seams in suburban life. Time and again Arnold, helped by editor Joe Bini, eschew the big scenes to which these road films succumb. When a quartet of cowboys built like racks of sirloin (one of whom is Will Patton) pick Star up for an afternoon of mescal and pool cavorting, I braced for a sexual assault sequence that never comes, as of course it shouldn’t: these dudes would be terrified if their wives found out they were partying with a chick. Arnold regards these stretches of plains as if they were no different from the moors in her adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
In 2013 a fervent audience turned the similarly winsome and elegiac Springbreakers into a cult hit; American Honey is the better film. By allowing James Franco, at the peak of his grip on straight dudes who write for newspapers, to run away with his movie, Harmony Korine showed his disinterest in the girls (Lodge makes the same observation). Arnold keeps LaBouef offscreen for long periods – a shrewd move aesthetically, for it allows Sasha Lane to give a performance with no trace of “acting” and reminds audiences that LaBouef’s Jake smells like an old sofa. As I wrote earlier, the limning of drift is American Honey‘s purpose. It includes no bonding moments between Star and the crew; they’re faces, interesting ones. I was taken by Pagan, played by Arielle Holmes, coming to life only at the mention of the Star Wars universe. She includes no back stories, no exposition; we don’t ever see, for example, Krystal in communication with their mysterious corporate overlords or how she gets the money for the hotels, cars, and pizza. But Arnold is aware of how a kid with whom a regular crew member shared a Motel 6 bed one night may be gone the next, never to return.
At 163 minutes, you may wonder how the hell Arnold fills the time. The crew partying outside those motels by campfire; Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” accompanying a drive scene; Star and Jake ambling down a residential street where sprinklers hiss – imagine the River Phoenix road sequences in My Own Private Idaho given more space to show the surreality in naturalness. I could easily have watched another three hours of American Honey.