Born to run wild

A road movie for a new America

Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough. Directed by Andrea Arnold. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

In American Honey, British filmmaker Andrea Arnold has a rag-tag group of rootless young people traveling across the U.S. “heartland” in a van, ostensibly for the purpose of raising money by selling magazine subscriptions, but also for whatever adventures (and misadventures) they can rustle up along the way.

The entire endeavor, the film as well as its story, seems both fascinating and slightly cracked right from the start. The journey is long (163 minutes of screen time), even the characters who show flashes of brilliance and charm are flawed and erratic, and the group’s journey is littered with crime (mostly petty), bits of violence, physical abuse, and disappointment, as well as the mixed blessings of sex, drugs and hip-hop.

But as grim as it might sound in bare-bones synopsis, American Honey is a surprisingly rich experience, provocative, unpredictable, full of stray and offbeat discoveries, lyrical in ways that are both gritty and luminous.

The key figures in all this are a spindly young runaway named Star (Sasha Lane in her film debut); the tough-talking young boss-lady Krystal (Riley Keough), who is in charge of the itinerant sales crew; and a smooth-talking salesman and lothario named Jake (Shia LeBeouf), who romances Star and serves as Krystal’s lieutenant and “bitch.” (Much of the cast, including Lane, is made up of nonprofessionals recruited off the street, with Keough, LeBeouf and Will Patton being the lone pro actors of note.)

Most of the film’s sprawling, loose-knit story stays close to Star’s point of view, and that serves to suggest that American Honey is, at least in part, a coming-of-age story for Star. But Arnold brings a mixture of raw realism and patient sympathy to all of the characters, including imperious Krystal and mercurial Jake.

In a review for Variety, Guy Lodge praised the film as “Part dreamy millennial picaresque, part distorted tapestry of Americana and part exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical ….” I’d quibble with some of the details in that description, but I think Lodge is quite right about the film’s inspired and provocative blend of genres.

At times, it is indeed a very lively movie musical, and one in which the music has much to do with the characterizations—both as a force of liberation and community and as a tool for social control. There’s a fractured kind of love story mixed in with that, and in its road-movie, road-show mode American Honey also becomes a kind of traveling circus and, in a late sequence, a festival of solidarity for outsiders.

Especially with Jake, the film is also a kind of inverted Death of a Salesman for the 21st century. He is, among other things, a transient acolyte of TV’s self-help gurus, simultaneously a parody and a victim of the Horatio Alger-ish, “up by his own boot straps” model of individual enterprise and the ascent to wealth.