The kids are from all over: the South, the West, outside the United States, New Jersey, all crammed together in an oversized van, nearly impossible to keep straight. But they come together for bursts of music—radio songs, songs over Kmart PA systems, or once in a while, the sounds of one of them strumming an acoustic guitar. Andrea Arnold’s American Honey doesn’t contain musical numbers, exactly; its interludes are more like the “Tiny Dancer” scene from Almost Famous crossed with a low-budget music video. Even literal background characters get in on the action, from country line-dancing in a dingy bar to suggestive moves practiced in the backyard at a young, privileged teenager’s birthday party.
Star (Sasha Lane) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf) are not attending the birthday party in question. Rather, they’ve managed to get in the door of a well-appointed home because they’re selling magazine subscriptions, the quaintness of which is not lost on either the makeshift salespeople or their customers. (Sample exchange: “People actually buy these anymore?” “Fuck no.”) It sounds like a scam, but only the personal details they supply—like Jake and Star being siblings or the idea that they’re selling magazines to pay for college—are fake. The kids in the van really do work for some kind of subscription company, which takes a cut of their sales but provides room and board (of the motel variety) and sometimes food, in addition to their commissions. During their cross-country trips to various neighborhoods, the kids are supervised by Krystal (Riley Keough), who looks a bit like Kristen Stewart done up as some kind of hillbilly madame. Each day, Krystal drops her employees off in teams to scour various neighborhoods and then picks them back up at night, preferably with cash in hand. She pairs Star, who has run away from an impoverished life of heavy and unfair responsibility, with Jake, who seems to almost qualify as an old hand in a business that probably has a lot of turnover.
Star isn’t great at sales. But her willingness to hop into strangers’ cars goes a long way, and this road movie frequently branches off into side trips following her attempts to make money, prove herself, or meet other goals that seem clear only to her, if at all. American Honey is not, to put it lightly, plot-driven; it sprawls out in multiple directions without a clear sense of destination, and its 160-minute running time can be exhausting. It’s also frequently breathtaking in its raw-nerve beauty. Plenty of recent films can claim Terrence Malick as an influence, but Arnold is one of the few filmmakers who takes that intuitive style in a fresh direction—who builds on it, rather than repeating its contemplative whispers. In place of movie stars who may be cut to 30 seconds of screen time, there are improvising young people fighting for attention. In place of narration about nature and grace, there is the nearly all-diegetic soundtrack and all the voices singing along.
As with her previous films, Arnold shoots American Honey in a square-ish aspect ratio of 1:1.33. In her wonderful Fish Tank, the boxier frame made her teenage girl protagonist look constrained. Here, when used for close-ups, it can briefly make Star and the others look huge, looming in a screen shaped more like a classic IMAX screen. Star often appears out of focus in the foreground, especially during the opening half hour; when she first spots Jake and the others in a parking lot, they’re tiny but sharp, while she’s bigger and fuzzy. As she takes her place in their sometimes-quarrelsome ranks, some of the imagery gets bolder and dreamier, like shots of Lane and LaBeouf sitting on the roof of the van as it whooshes through the night.
Lane, a first-time film performer who Arnold discovered at a beach, holds her own with a compelling sense of defiance. She’s often placed opposite an eye-catching performance from LaBeouf, whose hairstyle here makes him resemble a dirtbag Padawan. (No one makes that particular reference, but there’s still a surprising amount of Star Wars talk, because Pagan, played by Heaven Knows What’s Arielle Holmes, is obsessed with the series and Darth Vader in particular.) At first, Star’s relationship to Jake is part little sister, part playground flirtation, and when their affair moves into more intense territory, it’s sometimes just the slightest bit difficult to buy into the mutual passion, despite two convincing performances.
But American Honey doesn’t rise and fall on the strength of its love story, if that’s even what happens between Star and Jake. Arnold touches on a lot—rural poverty in America, class divisions, the impulsiveness and recklessness of youth—but never tames her film into a strict polemic. Though small-scale on a scene-by-scene basis, it expands into something at once more enveloping and more elusive: a massive, familiar chorus echoing over an equally large superstore PA.