The title to Andrea Arnold’s latest film, American Honey, is taken from a familiar Lady Antebellum song, which told of a chaste adolescent girl chasing the fuzzy memories of her childhood, in a desperate bid to escape the responsibilities of adult life – a marked parallel to the motivations of Star (Sacha Lane), the heroine at the heart of this frenetically hazy picture.
Music plays an integral role in Star’s journey. When her eyes first meet with those of raffish magazine seller Jake (Shia LeBeouf) across the aisles of a crowded Walmart, it’s to the tune of Rhianna’s ‘We Found Love (in a Hopeless Place)’; a lyrical prophecy maybe, of the future they’ll one day share together. Later, Star and a group of friends dance to the same song whilst scouting for sales on a Texan oil field, its rapturous nature in such circumstance proving that when you’re around these guys, the party never stops.Enamoured by Jake’s rakish charisma, and desperate to escape the destitute of her own existence, Star hitches a ride with him and his motley mag crew, travelling the Midwest on a mission to sell subscriptions door to door, using any means necessary to secure a sale. You sense that love could well be in the air, but with the band’s aggressively assertive boss Krystal (an intoxicating Riley Keough) keeping one eye firmly fixed on Star, it quickly begins to appear as if she’s actually on a road to nowhere, with no chance of getting there any time soon.
Opting to release her script from the constraints of a conventional narrative structure, Arnold instead hands the wheel over to the gang, and lets them drive in whatever direction they want – their travels fuelled with a free, faraway spirit where everything and nothing are equally as possible. Collectively, they represent a contemporary counterculture, one born out of the current financial crises; a deep depression that’s thrust, with refreshing candour, under the spotlight here – DP Robbie Ryan’s gritty, washed-out compositions imbuing the film with a profound, poetic intensity.
As a British director, Arnold may observe with an outsider’s eye, but she has an acute awareness and understanding of her surroundings. Divides here run far deeper than socio-economic differences, this is society haunted by shadows of the past and horrified by the uncertainty of the future – as an allegory for modern America, it’s perhaps the most significant road movie since Hopper’s Easy Rider.Throughout, there’s a persisting, thoughtful vacancy to Star’s wandering highway safari, and yet Arnold, with her fiery directorial temperament, always retains a tight focus on those in the frame – her continued use of a 4:3 aspect ratio ensuring greater emphasis is given to the individual characters.
Pushed to the centre of the stage with nary an acting credit to her name, Sacha Lane charges the screen with an electric magnetism that holds you captivated even when the extravagant run-time causes your interest to wane. But it’s LeBeouf who’s the real revelation here – a lethal presence, with a devilish charm that masks his rough-edges. There’s an essence of Bonnie & Clyde in Star and Jake’s roguish adventures; outlaws determined to strike back against the system without giving any thought to the consequences. At close to 3 hours in length, it’s an excessive story, but also an exhilarating one.