Director: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf
Length: 2hr 43m
Much like the characters making up the “mag-crew”, the strengths of American Honey come from its refusal to conform to the conventions of the mainstream. Not quite a coming of age tale, director Andrea Arnold avoids expectation in Star (Sasha Lane), a teenager eager to escape her deadbeat life. She goes from impoverishment and abuse, to a spontaneous road trip across Mid-West America with a group of teenagers who live off the sale of magazine subscriptions. Surprisingly, this premise is based on an actual phenomenon; Arnold discovered these “mag-crews” via a documentary. Even more surprising is despite the romance which quickly develops between Star and the unofficial leader of the group Jake (Shia Leboeuf); all of this feels fairly authentic.
Perhaps this can be credited to Arnold’s intimate take on the young adults and their world. While Star and Jake hold the majority of screen time, the choice to use unknown actors, ones who do not conform to the typical clean cut Hollywood standard of beauty, creates a believable backdrop. If Arnold aimed to create a realistic looking cast, she succeeds. Although perhaps a greater focus on the others would have benefitted the film, Pagan’s (Arielle Holmes) melancholic love of Star Wars – she carries her magazines around in a Wookiee bag – was a charming aspect of the film. That said, her character does not serve a significant purpose to the plot or to our main characters. The worst example of this superficiality is the romantic adversary to Star, the real leader of the group, Katness (Crystal B. Ice). While she gets arguably the better of the references to the title – “You’re a southern girl, a real American Honey like me” – her character is often presented as a villain for the sake of it. One notable example being a confrontation scene between her and Star, wherein she wears a confederate flag bikini.
Another success of the film however is the soundtrack. Using “current” music can often be seen as risky, placing the film in a specific timeframe, unnecessarily making it feel outdated even by the end of its cinematic release. Or worse, showing the director’s lack of understanding towards the age group they are portraying, their poor taste. Arnold is able to navigate around these issues. Featuring artists such as Raury and Carnage, the film captures the youthful spirit of its characters.
Yet it is Arnold’s attention to detail which highlights the mastery of production. If the music grounds the film then the cinematography elevates it. The Academy aspect ratio and close camera angles builds an intimacy with our lead Star. Drawing the audience into her world and creating a unique perspective, the camera lingers upon insects, animals, nature, each shot demonstrating effort and care. Lane should also be applauded for maintaining emotional intensity and authenticity despite the intimate and often intrusive camera work, especially considering this is her debut performance. The framing of the screen in this ratio is also reminiscent of a polaroid picture, reinforcing the almost nostalgic quality in the cinematography. Perhaps this was not intended and just my interpretation, but the fact the film is able to make me ponder the technical aspects of production, shows boh its strengths and weaknesses. It is catered for those that enjoy the artistry of visuals. However this means the film may not have mass appeal, falling into the usual problem of independent films. The simplistic plot and lack of a clearly resolved ending won’t appeal to everyone. But I doubt Arnold made the film simply to satisfy a mass audience.
Overall American Honey achieves a higher standard of film making than commonly seen. And no, Shia LaBeouf does not ruin the movie.