Movie Review: “American Honey”

Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi
Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” is a nearly three-hour film that, on the surface, doesn’t add up to a lot. This coming-of-age tale is extra light on plot, but it has no shortage of energy or passion. This is the kind of movie where every shot and scene is tangible. The director behind “Fish Tank” and “Red Road” has crafted a hypnotic experience, presenting a world and characters that keep your eyes glued to the screen for 163 minutes.

Star (Sasha Lane) is an 18-year-old girl who’s looking for a new life, and she might just find it with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his crew, who travel the country selling magazines. One day while out with her younger brother and sister, she spots Jake and his young gang out and about, doing whatever they please – sing, dance, or whatever else would draw attention – as they shop. Their sense of freedom, and Jake’s charisma, catches Star’s eyes. Jake offers her a chance to travel the country with him and the rest of the team, going from motel to motel, town to town, trying to sell enough magazines to get by. Star agrees to go with them and embarks on the first big journey of her life. Along the way, maybe she’ll learn an important lesson or two, but Andrea Arnold isn’t the kind of storyteller that’ll tell you if she does; she’s the kind of filmmaker that shows you.

Arnold avoids most narrative conventions. Because of that, her movies tend to truly live and breathe. There’s rarely any doubt they’re authentic. In “American Honey,” she’s even less interested in a three-act journey, although her script and Star’s journey clearly has a beginning, middle and end. Most of “American Honey” feels like the most personal and cinematic home videos you’ve ever seen. There’s always an immediacy and intimacy to what we’re watching, and that’s partially because the actors are so present.

Shia LaBeouf has never been this charismatic in a role. That may sound odd because he rarely plays characters this volatile, but LaBeouf is incredibly genuine here. When he first appears on screen, he has this electricity energy that can’t help but make you smile, which helps you understand why Star would be so drawn to him. I won’t spoil where their relationship goes, but LaBeouf is every bit as magnetic as newcomer Sasha Lane.

Lane, in her first movie, gives a deeply internalized and emotional performance. Star is young, a little shy, and not very well spoken, so Lane is almost always playing at what’s going on underneath the surface. And what’s going on underneath the surface isn’t always clear, but that’s a part of the power of her performance – it’s real and messy. Nothing ever feels calculated about the choices Lane is making. From beginning to end, Lane presents this sad, beautiful, funny, bothersome and, depending on who you ask in the group, unhealthy lifestyle, which Arnold never comments on.

Arnold is an unobtrusive filmmaker. As much as she uses music in this instance, she’s never pushing an audience to feel one way or another about a character or scenario. She’s completely subjective, with the camera always painting a point-of-view. That’s most evident in “American Honey’s” sex scenes, with the intensely personal shot choices reflecting what Jake and Star are experiencing. Arnold is all about their experience, and that makes for a very entertaining, unforgettable three-hour story that’s over before you know it.


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