American Honey (2016) Andrea Arnold
By Jessica Carr
Have you ever had a dream? Something you wanted more than anything else. For most people, the dream looks like making money or succeeding at a career path. For Star (Sasha Lane), the dream is to live in a trailer somewhere with lots of trees and room for lots of kids. Once Star realizes this dream, she is motivated to do whatever she has to in order to make it happen.
American Honey doesn’t really have a set narrative. The film is from Star’s perspective and shows her joining a group of teens that are a part of a magazine selling crew. They give people a variety of lies in order to get them to buy magazine subscriptions. You can tell that each member of the crew comes from poverty, drugs, or grew up in a very unstable environment hence the reason why they are probably there. Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Krystal (Riley Keough) are the ring leaders of the traveling group. They recruit teens along the way to join the crew.
From the opening shot, I knew the specific class of people that director Andrea Arnold was tuning into. The audience first meets Star while she is digging around in a dumpster attempting to find something to eat for her family. Arnold shows the not-so dreamlike portion of America very clearly in this film. She takes the audience through what I would frankly call, “the buttcrack of America.” But, it gets interesting when you start to realize that aside from the fancy houses and nice clothes the rich people are very similar to the teens we’ve been following around throughout the course of the film.
Performance-wise, Sasha Lane is an all-star. She is sure to be an indie sweetheart in the coming years. At first, I wasn’t too keen on how Shia could add to the film, but I think he gave a good performance. There was a very natural chemistry between him and Lane that propelled the romance of the film. I still struggle with how genuine Jake was with Star. His character is clearly a conflicted one. I think that Arnold captures the idea of “Love in a Hopeless Place,” very well. Not to mention, the Rihanna song plays several times in the film.
As for the technical aspects, the film was shot with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I think it really helped keep the focus on Star for most of the movie. The camera usually stayed close to her face for the key emotional points. It worked in the films favor in my opinion and we still get lots of great shots of American landscape at various points in the film. The run-time for the movie was a little long coming in at about 2 hours and 43 minutes. The friends that I watched this movie with complained that the movie could’ve done without the long run-time. I’m going to argue that each shot is purposeful. The long takes where the teens are riding in the car are necessary because that’s how their life really is. In order for the movie to serve its purpose, I think it needs to authentically show what life in Star’s shoes is like. She is going to ride in a car for hours and they are going to have meaningless conversation while rap music plays—that’s just how it is.
I think that a main theme in this film and in Arnold’s other film Fish Tank revolves around survival. It’s not easy being a young woman growing up in a low socioeconomic environment. Sexualizing yourself becomes a tool for survival. Star doesn’t resist as her “stepfather” gropes her because she wants to live to see another day. At various points in the film, guys in the magazine crew will just pull out their dicks. At one point one of them says to Star, “Let me be the one to fuck you first.” So, it’s not hard to fathom why Star thinks her relationship with Jake is a healthy one. For me, the best shots in the film are when she is alone. When she goes into the lake even though she can’t swim and she dunks her head underwater, you start to think she will never come back up. But then she emerges, flings her hair in the air, and takes a deep breathe. I know she will continue to fight on, and I’m so thankful to see a film that shows me what her life is like.