Film Review: American Honey (MA15+) (UK/USA, 2016) is a hypnotic, optimistic and euphoric experience

Director Andrea Arnold is probably one of the most distinct British directors working today. Her visual eye, her ability to capture slice-of-life moments in a compellingly cinematic way, and especially her way of extracting fantastic performances out of non-actors. Her films like Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011) are true examples of such.

Her latest film, American Honey is another sterling example of her talent. However, there are notable differences in the film that makes American Honey such a stand-out, so much so that it might actually be her best work yet.

The film introduces us to newcomer Sasha Lane as 18-year-old Star, scavenging for food out of dumpsters for children she cares for. She then sees a group of overeager teenagers heading into a superstore and is intrigued by their presence. Headed by a charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), they both quickly develop a simmering rapport and he offers her a job opportunity. Since it affords the opportunity of travel, Star accepts the offer, as long as it is away from where she currently resides. She learns that Jake is one of the leaders of the group, who travel the country selling magazines door to door. Earning money while living the life day to day—partying, drinking, and singing their way across America.

If people are going to watch the film for the story, they will definitely be disappointed. But if you are looking for a compelling character study as well as a beautifully atmospheric journey with a worthwhile destination, then American Honey is your type of honey film. With all tropes that Arnold utilizes, she also adds some new ones to her repertoire that add a lot to the movie.

American Honey is a lot more fantastical than one would expect. Elements from fables are evident in Star’s journey, that she might as well be a substitute for Dorothy Gale or a princess. The sights of ruby slippers, the candy ring Star wears, the “treasure” that one of the characters saves up for, Star’s interactions with animals, the interactions of the misfits, the knight in shining armor trope; all of these elements convey Star’s sense of naivety convincingly as well as hint the many levels of her character progression. But like all fairy tales (the true ones, anyway), there are moments of darkness afoot.

Star explores new areas of life like sex, freedom, independence and other follies/lessons of youth through her journey and it is all portrayed in a fantastical sense. Like in a scene where Star goes along with three cowboys to sell magazine subscriptions, but in order to do that, has to drink strong liquor and eat a worm inside the liquor that is said (amusingly by Will Patton) to give the consumer good fortune. Or a scene where she goes with a lonely oil worker for a night out. It is scenes like this that convey Star’s independence while also shows how oblivious she is of the outside world.

The big part of youth is that one would think they are indestructible. And everything that is right or wrong, good or bad is magnified to a massive scale. Like if you fail an exam, you’ll end up being a deadbeat for the rest of your life. Or in the case of American Honey, if you fail to make your quota, you’ll end up in a seemingly never-ending fight. And Arnold seems to tap in the topic of youth particularly well, similar to her earlier film, Fish Tank. The use of the 4:3 ratio is refreshingly not used to convey a sense of claustrophobia (like in her previous films), but to actually make her characters larger than life, hence giving the characters a sense of invulnerability through various close-up shots.

The soundtrack is a major factor that gives American Honey such a euphoric effect. Songs like “We Found Love” by Rihanna (used in an amusing fashion if you know the lyrics) and “American Honey” by Lady Antebellum (used well in conveying a sense of freedom) are well-utilized. But the best thing in American Honey is the cinematography by Robbie Ryan.

There is always a sense of splendour and beauty within settings or locations that divide social statuses, like a scene in the woods where Star and Jake mingle or a scene set at night, where a long-running flame takes flight in the background. Amusingly enough, these images only appear in the settings of the lower status, unlike the settings where the wealthy reside. Even something as simple as a woman’s hair flowing with the wind and into the camera lens is breathtaking to see.

The actors also deserve a lot of credit for their parts. Shia LaBeouf lends a career-best performance as the charismatic and conflicted Jake. Using his innate charisma from his early roles with ease, particularly during the selling scenes, LaBeouf hasn’t been this likable in years. But blending his polarizing celebrity persona into the part, he makes Jake’s limited backstory more substantial than it should be and that is both thanks to LaBeouf and Arnold. He also has great chemistry with Lane and the two are electric when they are together, even when he tries to save Star from her predicaments like a knight in shining armor.

Riley Keough is fantastic as Krystal, the boss of the group of misfits as she commands the screen every time she shows up. There’s a scene where she is scolding Star about her work and Jake is applying skin cream on her like a slave and Keough makes it convincing, as if she’s the evil stepmother/queen of a fairy tale.

The rest of the actors (including those with no experience), whether the background extras or the small character parts that Star encounters, are equal genuine and engaging. The best parts of the film usually belong to them; like in a scene where a little girl who not only is extremely polite to Star, but wants to sing her favourite song, which happens to be “I Kill Children” by Dead Kennedys’, to her.

But naturally, the real star of the film is fittingly Sasha Lane as Star. Clearly showing evidence that director Arnold can get fantastic performances from inexperienced actors, Lane is a natural on-screen; easily capturing the camera’s attention and she convincingly shows a hard-edged side to her character as well as a sense of optimism as she ponders her wants and needs in her life as well as who she is. Star is basically an understated American version of the lead character, Mia, in Fish Tank, but Lane adds her own touch to the character that makes her stand on her own.

Much like my review, which is long, rambling and seems to have no end, the film can be seen that way for many viewers since it doesn’t have a plot and it does not help that the film is almost three hours long. But the film’s aimlessness reflects the journey of the characters and even the ending (which can feel a bit rushed to some) is more of a new beginning rather than an actual ending.

American Honey is a hypnotic, optimistic and euphoric experience that certainly deserves the accolades and buzz it got from Cannes onward and it is another cinematic gem from Andrea Arnold. Long story short: American Honey is my type of honey.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF (OUT OF FIVE STARS)

American Honey hits Australian cinemas this Thursday, November 3rd.