British director Andrea Arnold left her home country for the United States for her first feature film set and shot outside of the United Kingdom, using her working class background to expose the life of a young American Honey and her desires for something greater. The Instagram-documentary-like film establishes a modern take on the pursuit of happiness with visuals and audio that invite you on the journey.
American Honey follows the life of Star (Sascha Lane), an 18 year-old girl stuck in a hopeless life assuming more responsibilities than she should, opening with her dumpster diving for food and attempting to hitchhike with two kids that aren't her own. Upon seeing a white van filled with a rambunctious crowd, she allows her curiosity to take over and follows them into a Walmart-esque store. There she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) with whom she is immediately hypnotized. Jake breaks out in to dance with his squad as “We Found Love” by Rihanna plays over the speakers before inviting her to join his comrades selling magazines door-to-door across the Midwest. After the minute of spontaneous excitement from meeting Jake, Star rushes home and returns the kids to their biological mother and drops her suffocating life, beginning to pursue her own adventure by joining the ragtag team of semi-delinquents to start an exhilarating life on the open road. Star finds her escape traveling cross-country working during the day and staying in motels and partying by night.
In several interviews the cast explains that Arnold and her casting directors traveled across America in search of their perfect characters. Sasha Lane, who plays the main character Star, was scouted on her spring break in Panama City Beach. With relatively little experience, she gives an exceptionally captivating performance as a tortured girl full of idealism and hopefulness for her modest future. Most of the cast was scouted in the same way. This type of casting allows the actors to be extremely genuine within their characters, which shows in the film from beginning to end. Two actors, however, already had extensive experience under their belt. Shia LaBeouf’s performance as the rat-tail wearing, slightly erratic Jake is one of his best performances in the last decade and one of the best at the Cannes Film Festival. The character Jake is so in tune with LaBeouf’s celebrity persona one can hardly tell the difference. Another stand out performance includes Riley Keough’s portrayal of the ruthless ringleader Krystal who embodies the phrase “if looks could kill.” The performances combined with the cinematography allow the audience to experience the world through Star’s eyes, getting to know best the characters she knows best.
The cast and crew travelled over 10,000 miles shooting on location collecting hours of road trip footage. Stand out Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan closely captures intimate moments on the road and highlights the off-beat characters without inducing claustrophobia. With a 1:37:1 aspect ratio, the nearly square screen gives a home-movie feel pushing the story forward through snapshots of experiences rather than a traditional plot arc. Images of twisting hair, beautiful landscapes, and candid moments flood the screen for an over all feel good sensation, but the film tackles serious issues such as domestic abuse, morality, and income inequality to represent a world as dynamic and fascinating as the real one.
The “American Honey” soundtrack acts more as a mix tape rather than background noise; I found myself singing and dancing along in my movie theater seat wishing I was jamming out with the windows down. Arnold avoids an instrumental score and goes for a fantastic combination of recognizable tracks each song better than the next. Arnold incorporates a variety of genres including rap, hip-hop, country, and electronic, and by the end of the film we hear a repeat of Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” the group’s favorite, which could not have been a more perfect fit for the film. Hats off to the music supervisor.
With a practically unrecognizable cast, a non-story plot, and a run time of 162 minutes, the success of Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature film American Honey seemed unlikely, but the Cannes Jury Prize winner immerses you deeply within the lives of the nomadic runaways leaving you wanting to feel the wind in your hair as you explore new lands.