Watching “American Honey” feels like getting a personal invitation to the feral, cross-country van party that exists at the center of the film. The audience acts as a fly on the wall, privy to the runaway subculture’s breathtaking highs and devastating lows. Without knowing much about the characters, we develop an easy intimacy with them that magnetizes their every movement.
The film introduces protagonist Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) dumpster diving with her two young siblings. She takes care of them for her deadbeat parents and has way too much responsibility for the 18 years that she claims she is. So when opportunity, dressed as Shia LaBouef (“Fury”) with a rattail braid, comes knocking, she follows.
Star meets the charismatic Jake (LaBouef) at a Wal-Mart, gyrating during the Rihanna song “We Found Love.” He invites her to join his group, selling magazines across the country in a white van. From the moment she says yes, the film becomes a sprawling episodic adventure with a disjointed and random plot. This is not a movie that obeys the laws of screenwriting — what happens is not the point. Director Andrea Arnold (“Wuthering Heights”) doesn’t care about chronological sense or the passage of time. The editing is similarly carefree and nonchalant, vacillating between languid dreaminess and accelerated, anxious pacing. Fascinated by the minuscule, the camera lingers unnervingly on shots of nature and insects, rather than the characters themselves. Arnold isn’t worried about plot, but is preoccupied by the way she can make your heart plummet and soar with a single image of a bee flitting across the screen.
The other members of the team, most of whom are not professional actors, serve mostly as vessels onto which we can project our own neuroses. None are as terrifying or compelling as the ringleader of the ‘mag crew,’ Krystal, played curtly by Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter; “Mad Max: Fury Road”). Although she never fully opens her eyes, Krystal has complete control over everyone around her.
The film’s minor characters exist alongside Star, in the van and on the streets of suburbia peddling magazines, but do not receive the same backstory she does. And yet, they are not incomplete — we get small fragments of identity from them in their dance moves or propensity for flashing. They are not fully fleshed out, permitting the audience to play a hand in constructing identity and emotionally expanding the plot.
Because so much of the film takes place in the van, the dynamic and wavering nature of the soundtrack anchors the audience in time and space. The limited setting of the van, packed with pierced, tattooed flesh squeezed into Daisy Dukes, feels inescapable, with music serving as the only outlet. The melodies reverberate in our memories, a sense of déjà vu washing over us every time the radio is sporadically turned on. When the titular “American Honey” by Lady Antebellum comes on and the whole van sings along, it feels genuine and heart-wrenching in a way that could have been kitschy in the hands of a less competent director.
It’s fair to say that on a whole, the multiplicity of the film could not have been done by anyone but Arnold. The camera examines Star’s exploration into her sexuality in both upsetting and loving situations. It could have easily turned into a cautionary tale of young girls going into cars with strange men, but remained a story of adventure and growing up.
“American Honey” viscerally understands the terrain of its lens. It doesn’t shy away from stereotypes or ugliness, because it knows what is there. But it also captures raw, gut-wrenching profiles of people mostly ignored by society, making the film and its characters impossible to get out of your head.