In American Honey, writer-director Andrea Arnold crafts a coming-of-age story about teenage wanderlust that practically feels like a documentary. The film is a peculiar slice of life, both immersive and engrossing, and while watching it you feel as though you are just another member of the rag-tag crew. The camerawork and a score driven by pop music enhance the realism of the film. The story focuses around a group of young people who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Full of an ensemble cast of mostly non-actors, American Honey wanders through life with dubious morals, sexual and emotional exploration, and the pace of a buddy road trip movie – just with about a dozen buddies.
Our proxy for this meandering trip is Star (Sasha Lane), a teenager first seen scavenging a lukewarm raw whole chicken out of a dumpster behind a grocery store with her younger siblings. While attempting to hitchhike back home, she sees a van full of rowdy kids drive into a large parking lot, where she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake extends an invitation for Star to join the crew, saying that she can meet them at the hotel tomorrow morning. Back at home, the grimness of Star’s home life is revealed in a matter-of-fact way, which only cements the feeling that she is carrying the family on her back.
That evening, she sneaks out of the house with her two younger siblings, avoiding a drunken redneck man whose relationship to them all is unclear but generally unimportant. She takes them to a local country bar, where she confronts her mother, who is line dancing. There, Star says that she has a job, but that means that her mom needs to take the kids back (“They are your kids”, she says). When her mom balks at this idea, Star excuses herself to go to the bathroom, but bolts out the front door instead. It is a harsh moment as she abandons her younger siblings to begin her own adventure, but the film does enough work to establish that she is punching far above her weight class with regards to the responsibility she is undertaking. At this moment, I felt sad that Star was reduced to this choice, but excited that she had the courage to pursue whatever vague notion of a dream that she had.
It isn’t until the next morning that Star meets Krysta (Riley Keough), who explains that the crew is put together to sell magazines door-to-door. Star gets hired, is put under Jake’s wing for training, and is clearly smitten with him. The remainder of the film, which is another two hours plus, essentially follows this wayward bunch of cast-offs as they sob-story their way to commissions for peddling these crappy magazines. The film certainly feels its length as it stretches out to about 2 hour and 40 minutes of run time, but at least part of that effect is appreciated. You’re meant to feel the drawn-out sluggishness of a long road trip and an aimless journey. For some, the ponderous run time of American Honey is going to test their patience too much, and I think that is a fine critique of the film.
As previously mentioned, most of the roles were cast by Arnold’s technique of “street casting”, which is basically just the director hanging out with people and casting based on look and feel – not traditional acting experience. Obviously, there are some seasoned actors in prominent roles, LaBeouf and Keough spring to mind, but most of the cast is populated with novices. You really wouldn’t know to look at it though, as almost everyone in the film feels genuine, lived-in, and realistic. It is likely that Arnold simply captures the real personalities of these people, relying on improv and ad-libbing to a certain extent. This can go wrong easily, but for American Honey it is a resounding success. This style of casting practically lends the film a hybrid feel, somewhere between documentary and narrative feature.
Other stylistic aspects of the film follow suit with this hybrid classification. Pop songs occupy a diegetic space in this film, and the crew often passionately sings along, including in the sequence responsible for the title of the film. The cinematography borrows the rolling landscapes and scenic beauty of the standard documentary, and a more hand-held camera style details the inner working of the magazine crew. This camera work is fascinating, as the camera often shifts and loses focus within a scene, usually as a metaphor for the apprehension and uncertainty of the characters involved in the scene. It also bobs and weaves throughout the crew members, imparting the audience with a sense that we are just another member of the team. Finally, the entire film is show with a square aspect ratio, which is really startling at the beginning of the film. Eventually, you get used to it, and it could be interpreted at as a way to make the film resemble “real life” a little more. After all, we don’t really see our world in 16:9 widescreen. Ultimately, this camerawork is strong, distinctive, and assists with the immersion into this band of misfits.
If there is a weakness to American Honey, the film seems to treat its thematic content with the same laggard approach it uses for its meandering narrative. The film deals with ideas of teenage wanderlust and exploration, of course, but there are also hints of sexual / romantic exploration and exploitation, honesty with regards to salesmanship, and a general sense of camaraderie. “Follow your dreams” and “You can’t go back home” are jammed in there for good measure, too. Ultimately, it all gets kind of muddled up, as Arnold seems much more focused on generating an overall Naturalistic feel to the thematic and tonal qualities of her film. She’s searching for a slice of life – a very peculiar slice of life. American Honey succeeds there, but it falls short of the grandiosity of other films that occupy a similar head space but also have additional ideas to champion: things like Easy Rider, Rain Man, and even Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
At the end of the day, American Honey is a welcome and distinctive film that happily melds the stylistic choices of a documentary with a free-form narrative focused on teenage exploration. The cast, full of mostly novices, is a brilliant choice from writer-director Andrea Arnold, and the overall camerawork and odd aspect ratio choice further adds to the realistic experience of this film. This film is anything but bland and safe, and despite its flawed thematic development and a lengthy story, its atypical stylistic choices will reward those that seek it out.