When gearing up for a road trip, it’s essential to pack your car full of junk food. Sacks of sugar-covered candies are made for this type of excursion. For the first few minutes, indulging in this type of splurging can be enjoyable, but soon starts to make you feel a bit uneasy, a little queasy and disgusted. It was fun while it lasted, but now you’re a bit sick to your stomach. You’re so distracted by the sickness that you’ve indulged in, it’s easy to ignore the beauty that is flying by your window..
American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s fourth film—and her first made in the United States—leaves that same sort of sickly feeling, despite the gorgeous imagery that Arnold frequently presents. The journey is worthwhile, but it’s rarely fulfilling or with purpose.
Arnold’s guide to the road is Star (an excellent Sasha Lane), who is first presented digging through a dumpster, searching for anything of substance. When she finds a raw chicken, and returns it home, a little boy is seen stabbing at it with a fork, leaving a trail of blood and salmonella. Anything substantial is still covered in a layer of filth, ready to be destroyed.
Star and these children try to hitchhike home. “Are we invisible?,” she screams at cars that pass them by, presenting the main theme for American Honey right at the outset. One car that passes Star is filled with a group of teenage magazine sellers traveling the country. Star follows this group into a K-Mart, where they begin an impromptu dance party to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” find a freedom and hope embodied in this group that she longs for. It’s no wonder that “We Found Love” is the group’s de facto theme music, considering the song’s music video plays like a miniature (and more effective) version of where American Honey will go.
This group’s occasional leader is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), and Star has an immediate connection with him. Seeing a potential new worker, Jake offers for Star to join his ragtag group of misfits in their cross-country journey to make money, get turnt, and find their own American Dream. As a girl seeking any escape from her sexually abusive father, her meth-addict mother and the restlessness she feels, Star gets in Jake’s van and goes along for the ride. Star learns more about her “job” and her uneasy boss Krystal (Riley Keough), so her journey comes with its own sets of problems, be it love, money, or her place in the world.
Arnold tells this road trip in a way that mixes the naturalistic beauty of Terrence Malick, the gross pop-culture obsession of Harmony Korine, and the bland repetition of Chantal Akerman. Arnold’s strength in American Honey comes in her ability to present a location or home and allow the audience to pull together its own interpretations of that environment. This can at times be blatantly heavy-handed at times. For example, Star’s home prominently features a Confederate flag, then later we see Krystal wearing a Confederate flag bikini, almost as if Star has simply substituted one abusive family figure for another. But more often than not, Arnold allows us to breathe in our surroundings. Some of American Honey’s most beautiful moments come from letting us immerse ourselves in homes where The Wendy Williams Show blares in the background, as kids fend for themselves, with a fridge empty of anything but a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Elements like seeing family photos taped to a wall, spiders walking across a wall, or an old pair of ruby slippers left behind tell more of an innocence tarnished than Arnold’s script ever does.
While the white van of teens wandering around America is almost always full, rarely anyone matters other than Star and Jake. Krystal makes it clear that these kids are interchangeable, that at any moment, she could leave one of them on the side of road for not pulling their own weight, and Arnold makes that clear by never making us care for any of them. Most of these kids are unknowns, with the exception of the only other interesting character Pagan (played by Heaven Knows What’s Arielle Holmes), whom Star strikes up the barest of friendships. But it’s rare for any of them to be anything other than examples in Arnold’s attempts at a muddled message about American youth’s anxious hustle to succeed and how these kids get left behind. It’s hard to drag in any interest in these rowdy adolescents as they drop “N” bombs, show each other their dicks, and question whether or not its okay to steal a dog and get it high.
Thankfully Star and Jake make up for this absence of character in droves, as the two of them together makes for the film’s most electric moments. Jake’s manipulations and Star’s susceptibility to suggestion makes their dynamic exciting, and understandably problematic. Just like how Arnold directed the nonprofessional actor Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, Sasha Lane is natural as a lost soul struggling to find her place. But it’s LaBeouf who is magnificent here, as every action he takes has an underlying motive. At one point, he mentions that when selling magazines, he is actually selling himself, trying to present the person that the buyer wants to see. From that moment on, his every choice is multifaceted and intriguing in its layers.
But Arnold does bring these kids together at times through their love of music—another of American Honey’s strengths. Their monotonous trip is sprinkled with Almost Famous-ian moments of embracing shared music. Sometimes this is cringey, like when one passenger breaks out an acoustic guitar, or when the cast sings along to the Lady Antebellum song that gives the film its name. Yet when the film’s soundtrack is used in the background to evoke emotion or an idea that ties these kids together, the music wonderfully syncs with the story.
When she allows the images to speak for themselves, American Honey is captivating and borderline wondrous. But Arnold doesn’t seem to have a grasp of what she’s actually trying to say with this group. Is it to highlight the economically-ravaged towns of North America and the kids within them, searching for meaning? If so, what point is she even making with American Honey? There’s plenty of beauty that surrounds the vapid story of American Honey, but there’s not enough substance to maintain the banal emptiness within.