ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 28: American Honey

Year: 2016

Runtime: 163 Minutes

Director: Andrea Arnold

Writer: Andrea Arnold

Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough

By Mique Watson

Few films in the pantheon of cinema feature stories centered around teenage girls; even fewer films depict them in ways which are universally identifiable (ask anyone to name a flick about a teenage girl off the top of their head and I bet you’d get answers like Twilight, Divergent, or any other rehashed dystopian-chosen-one amidst-a-post-apocalyptic-society drama). It’s rare to see stories focused on the inner worlds of girls at such a precarious age. Imagine a film–one focused on a teenage girl at a precarious age; one with a sprawling (nearly three hours!) runtime of a cinematic epic; one with a protagonist so richly drawn and whose inner world and aspirations match the epic story that surrounds her. Luckily for you, this film exists–it’s called “American Honey”, and it’s brought to you by distinguished British auteur, Andrea Arnold

A film about a young girl whose story reflects that of many people we’ve heard tales about but have probably never met; the forgotten, jobless people of middle America. This is the best film I saw in 2016 (well, it tied with “Arrival” for my number one spot that year, but I digress…) and it is one which I feel I must do justice and sell in a way that convinces everyone reading this piece to seek it out. “American Honey” isn’t just an incredible film–it’s one that I find to be perfect and rapturing in ways which few films are. 

sasha-america.jpg

This is a tale about a young girl named Star (an incredible debut by actor, Sasha Lane), who lives in the squalor of a trailer park in Oklahoma. The film opens with her and two kids she cares for scavenging for food in a dumpster. Star, whilst inside a grocery store, happens upon a band of unruly people. Their rowdiness gets them kicked out and threatened with arrest. One of them invites her to leave home and join them on a road trip across America.

What She Said:

“It’s authentic. It’s gritty. The characters feel like real people. The film moves at a lyrical pace.”

Jourdain Searles, Fishnet Cinema

Twitter:@jourdayen

 Star’s interest in this is quite apparent, and this is a testament to Lane’s incredible performance; she is expressive, natural, and just plain real–there is not one shred of contrivance in what she delivers here. Later that same day, we see how she is inappropriately treated in her home by a man called “Daddy” (their relationship isn’t too clear–I’m under the impression he is one of her mother’s boyfriends filling in for an absent father; Star herself is racially ambiguous whereas her mother and “daddy” are white). Later that night, after enduring disgusting sexual advances by this man, she locates her mother at a bar–leaves the two children with her and runs off in hopes of coming across the troupe she had encountered earlier in the day. 

As luck would have it, she does; it is revealed they are itinerant magazine salespeople, and the man she appears to be fascinated by is Jake (Shia LaBeouf). The leader of the troupe is Krystal (Riley Keough--another fantastic performance from an actress so criminally underused in her other films; here, she is working with a role that does her abilities justice and doesn’t waste her).  Krystal is a no-nonsense, no-bullshit, fierce leader who travels by her own car (the others travel by van), and gets the privilege of having hotel rooms all to herself; she stringently implements these rules like they’re laws and makes it known that she will readily leave you on the street should you be unable to deliver and comply. She also seems to have some sort of an erotic bond with Jake, which comes into conflict when Jake and Star begin to develop more than a simple friendship in contrast with the rest of their camaraderie. 

riley american honey

As Jake is the best salesman on the team, Krystal partners Star up with him for him to show her the ropes. A stark contrast is drawn between Jake and Star, in how both their strategies involve charming the customer; yet, while Jake is a smooth-talking liar, Star is someone who speaks from her heart, she tells her truth (or the truth of what she perceives to be true, at least). Her truth is one which she deploys in hopes of building a relationship with the customer which ultimately makes the recipient of her story more open to hearing her sales pitch. Her truth is one which we learn as we spend time with her in this sprawling epic of a film.

What She Said:

“American Honey is a devastating film, but an essential one, and necessary viewing for anyone that really wants to understand the true extent of poverty’s impact in modern American society.”

Hannah Ryan, Screen Queens

A film which is nearly three hours long and dedicates most of its runtime to following characters drift around the country, from Kansas City to North Dakota; all while Star is staring out the window of the van and doing her own internal drifting: pondering on her life, the lives of others, what opportunities there are for people in her situation–and those not in her situation for that matter…what potential she has had in her little corner of the world and what she could potentially achieve now having left it. 

Star’s outer world is just as well-realized as her inner world. This is a world which is so tactile, vibrant, and passionately felt and tangible. The look of the film is breathtaking; shot in the 4×3 Academy ratio. Despite its square appearance, the effect its narrowness has is one which makes the frame look taller; one which visually conveys the sky being the limit to the dreams and aspirations of these youths which are difficult to achieve given their hardships in life. With all this, the film expertly places you right inside the head of Star–you’re irresistibly drawn to her life, despite how different it may be from yours; you understand, instinctively, who she is.

Several instances show Star taking care of insects; this conveys her nurturing personality and kindness (evident in the film’s opening sequence) is one which she does her best to maintain despite the harsh conditions she has put herself in. Today’s recent technological advancements give people the opportunity to enter worlds constructed entirely by virtual reality. This film doesn’t require any special sort of special VR-treatment; while we sit through it, we are Star. 

american honey shia

What lends more authenticity to this film is Arnold’s decision to cast an unknown actor in the crew of salespeople; besides Keough and LaBeouf, no one here registers as instantly recognizable (for most of them, this is their movie début). And this is why films of this sort are so welcome; “American Honey” is an oasis to be found in a parched desert. The individuals this film centres on exist in a bubble disconnected from the world most of us know–they manage to achieve snatches of bliss, and spurts of colour from lurid sunsets and the breathtaking vistas they come across on their journey. 

What She Said:

“Though it may come off as Malick for hip-hop-loving millennials, Arnold’s film is a surprisingly poignant experience, a sprawling yet intimate odyssey through Middle America, and a bracingly honest portrait of emerging adulthood.”

Britt Hayes, ScreenCrush
 

The late Roger Ebert once called movies a machine that generates empathy. Cinema may seem trivial right now, (especially in today’s environment in which everyone seems to be taking sides between Martin Scorsese and Marvel) but many people neglect that films like this exist–ones which generate empathy for a protagonist who lives a life filled with lived experiences completely unrelatable to many of us. There’s a sequence near the end which echoes the Tiny Dancer sequence from “Almost Famous”. This scene in particular encapsulates all the hope and fantasies each individual here has; it transcends the physical and enters the existential. It’s a scene so full of life and joy you almost forget how difficult these people’s lives are–and in that moment, so do they.

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

The Extra Bits:

Where to Watch:

YouTube: Rent & Buy

iTunes: Rent & Buy

Google Play: Rent & Buy

Who to follow:

@honeymovie

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