“American Honey”’s View of Vagabond Youth

Review by Ariya Sonethavy

Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature film isn’t your typical “teen” movie — it’s not even a particular type of drama. Very few films of the genre follow the story of a woman of color, especially one whose thoughts the audience are hardly aware of. The storytelling in American Honey is atmospheric, and even the scenes of great intensity of a peculiar quietness to them.

We follow an 18-year old texan, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), whose socioeconomic status deviates from the quirky white teen protagonists we see in movies about heartbreak and high school. The opening scene starts with star dumpster diving with two children — both of whom don’t seem to bear any blood relation to her — and their life ensues in typical fashion in their small Southern suburban home. There is a subtle nature in all of this. Arnold never gives away Star’s background in any kind of tangible story, but instead we see the young protagonist’s desire to escape when she cries softly as a man the children call “Daddy” forces her to slow dance with him to a country song.

The film itself isn’t about being poor, or even about life in the American South. Rather, it’s a portrait of youth that is never exposed in artistic mediums. Star eventually moves away from whatever life she had when she meets Jake (Shia Labeouf), who invites star to join his crew of traveling magazine sellers, run by a young but authoritarian Krystal (Riley Keough). The crew consists of young people from all different backgrounds, and together they seem like temporary family of hedonistic lost boys. Going door-to-door selling stories in exchange for magazine subscriptions, the group makes enough money to keep travelling across the country and enjoying their youth, deviating as far from 9-to-5 working class culture as possible. The near three hours of the film isn’t an epic in terms of thick plot, but instead encapsulates this visual poetry to create something strangely intimate. The magazine crew’s journey is turbulent, and there is an unspoken knowing that the group is temporary as different people come and go. Star breaks the Krystal’s order by finding an interest in Jake, and throughout the film their relationship see-saws from infatuation to jealous passive-aggressiveness. Star’s tumultuous personality is representative of the young women who are against the establishment, and even in a business where professionalism may lack, Star continually pushes Krystal’s buttons through her behavior.

There’s something political in Star’s disposition to difficult situations, and the cinematic frame that Arnold creates within this narrative is an artistic statement that extrapolates on the themes of youth — it’s a different play on the hazy teenager days that we see in movies like The Virgin Suicides, while the indulgence in being young and free deviates from films like Spring Breakers. The film takes a medium between placidity and action, and there’s a barrier between the audience and the characters from the fact that the film itself is merely a depiction — we never actually know what Star or Jake or any of the characters are thinking. The dreamy Instagram ratio visuals adds to the film’s character and atmosphere of motion, one that goes along with the nomadic nature of these wandering teenagers and the vastness of midwestern and southern America. There’s a richness in the energy of the actors on screen, most of which are unprofessional actors (Sasha Lane herself was found by Arnold on a beach with no prior acting experience), and communal empathy in the act of the entire crew singing along to popular rap and pop songs.

Arnold ultimately creates a masterpiece that isn’t driven by sex or edgy youth or love, or even the adventure of party culture. All these factors are instead taken in doses through the abstract, and becomes a messy anthology of raw exuberance, authenticity, and escape. American Honey is enigmatic, with the film being a window for observing rather than judging through a cohesive plot. The luminous cinematography and dizzying portrayal of youth make for Arnold’s statement that takes a Almost Famous-esque road film and transforms it into a work that has no boundaries or sense of time. Instead, we become the observers of an unorthodox romanticism of escape, reflecting all of our teenage desires to run away from home.

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