“She grew up on a side of the road/ Where the church bells ring and strong love grows,” begin the lyrics to “American Honey,” the chart-topping 2010 country hit by Lady Antebellum. English writer-director Andrea Arnold’s fourth film takes its title from the song, though the film’s troubled heroine, Star (Sasha Lane), has a chaotic upbringing a far cry from the stable, nostalgic childhood the song’s narrator recalls as “innocent, pure, and sweet.” Star nonetheless belts the entire song in unison with the pack of rowdy teenagers who make up most of American Honey’s cast. In choosing “American Honey” for her theme song, Arnold signals that she’s making a movie not just about a van full of teenage magazine salespeople but about America, a place whose sweet promise often comes with a bitter aftertaste.
At times Arnold, making her first film set in the United States, is a little too explicit about her goal of seeking the elusive truths of the heartland. In one early scene Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the ragtag group’s unquestioned alpha male, convinces 18-year-old Star to leave it all behind and take off with the gang in the van because “we don’t only sell magazines. We explore, like, America.”
In the 163-minute movie that follows, a lot more of the latter gets done than the former. Door-to-door magazine-subscription sales must have been a tough way to make a living even at the height of the print era. In the internet age it seems like little more than a pretext to get all these young people into a van. (Although such traveling sales crews do still exist—it was reading nonfiction accounts of their exploitive business practices that provided the initial inspiration for Arnold’s screenplay.) Anyway, Star’s family life, from the short and oblique glimpses we get of it, looks far worse. As the film opens, she’s dumpster-diving in a mall parking lot to find food for her two younger half-siblings. Later she’s forced into a queasy slow dance by a groping drunk who seems to be either her father or stepfather. Tempted by Jake’s promise of a life of freedom on the road, she dumps the two younger kids with their mother—who appears to have abandoned them for a life of practicing line dancing in a local saloon—and races off to join the hard-partying crew. The hand-held camera, operated by Arnold’s longtime director of photography Robbie Ryan, lurches and bobs along with her every step of the way, as it will throughout the movie.
Star’s name accurately characterizes the unquestioned priority Lane’s character occupies within the film’s otherwise flatly naturalistic point of view. In Star’s presence alone, the camera swirls and weaves as if in love with its subject, an effect that can be lyrical when paired with the exultant pop songs that weave in and out of the soundtrack of this loose, intuitively paced movie. (Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” blasted through the sound system of a big-box store, figures prominently in Jake and Star’s first flirtation scene and gets brought back later for an emotional reprise.)
In other scenes, though, American Honey’s loving gaze on its star’s (admittedly beautiful and highly expressive) face can lend an allusive vagueness to everything going on around her. We get that there are a bunch of hard-drinking teens riding around in a van selling magazines, but who are they exactly? What are their histories, their desires and fears, their alliances? In the vein of Harmony Korine’s deliberately affectless teen screenplays like Spring Breakers or Kids, American Honey leaves those questions unasked. With the exception of Star, Jake, and the crew’s ruthless queen bee of a boss (expertly embodied by Riley Keough), the magazine-selling teens are for the most part an indistinguishably lustful, drunken blur.
Yet American Honey isn’t aiming for affectlessness at all in its sustained emotional assault on the viewer. Again and again Arnold places Star in a position of potential danger—that creepy slow dance with dad, or a later sequence in which she hitches a ride with three middle-aged cowboys (one played by the great character actor Will Patton)–only to dissipate the tension in some unexpected and oblique way. Another scene lands Star in the midst of a family even less functional than her own, with a zonked-out junkie mother in charge of two unfed small children. The scene felt so aggressively poignant–-and so obviously symbolic of Star’s own circumstances—that I found myself resenting its open attempt to play on my emotions.
As a huge fan of Arnold’s 2009 feature Fish Tank—which, like American Honey, starred a nonprofessional teen actress whom Arnold discovered in the course of everyday life—I wish I had been more captivated by her first American venture. I don’t begrudge this movie its generous running time; that meandering road-trip pacing, in which anything or nothing can happen at any time, accounts for much of the film’s appeal. But I do wish its structure were less jaggedly episodic and its characters less hastily sketched. In Fish Tank, when the rebellious young heroine and her mother danced to a pop song near the film’s end, it made for a sublime resolution to their story, a wordless moment of connection between two characters who had spent the whole movie furiously at odds. Here, Arnold starts with the pop-ballad bonding moments and moves on to the relationships from there.
For all American Honey’s imperfections, there are plenty of reasons to see it. Arnold has a unique ability to capture landscape and mood, finding moments of contemplative beauty even in the flat Midwestern terrain of cheap motels and big-box stores. The performances, whether from novices like the sensational Lane or professionals like LaBeouf, Keough, and Patton, are at once naturalistic and emotionally precise. (Think what you want of LaBeouf’s buffoonish public persona—in the role of a sweet-talking scumbag, he’s perfection down to his pierced eyebrow and thick rat-tail braid.) And even if its storyline struck me as repetitive and rambling, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in just letting American Honey come at you in waves, one moment lifting you upward to exaltation, the next moment downward to abjection. Now that I think about it, that’s basically what it’s like to be a teenager, whether you’re partying in a van with Shia LaBeouf or not.