As a general rule, I would not wish to spend nearly three hours in a mini-van with young people who turn up the music real loud. As a general rule, being the age I am, I would go to any lengths to avoid such an experience. But American Honey is a film by Andrea Arnold and even though it does require you to spend nearly three hours in a min-van with young people who turn up the music real loud, you will not, in fact, regret it. Or at least not regret it entirely. A bit, perhaps, but you’ll get a good two hours regret-free.
This is the first American film by Arnold, the British director who made Wasp and Red Road and Fish Tank — three brilliant films in the social-realist tradition, one of which happens to be among my favourite films of all time. (Clue: Red Road.) Here, our protagonist is 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) who we first meet rooting around in a dumpster for food. She finds a chicken in plastic wrapping which she hands to the little boy and girl who seem to be in her charge. (To show how boring and old I am, my first thought was: I hope that chicken is fresh-ish or they are all going to get so sick.) We aren’t awarded a back story as such. We know only that she lives in a trailer with an adult man (her dad? her stepdad?) who may be molesting her, and that when she decides to hit the road she dumps the two kids back with their mother who may also be her mother (or older sister?).
She hotfoots it because she has met Jake in a supermarket car park. Jake is Shia LaBeouf with a single rat’s tail of a plait running down his back, but neither fact appears to put her off. Jake owns a sparkling gold phone and she is enchanted. Jake, it transpires, manages an itinerant ‘magazine crew’. That is, dirt-poor kids who travel the country in the van, sleep several to a room in down-at-heel motels, and sell magazine subscriptions door to door. But Jake is only second in command. The true boss is hard-faced, money-minded Krystal (Riley Keough who, if it’s of interest, is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley). Krystal is a sort of latter-day Fagin but looks hot in a Confederate-flag bikini whereas, I’m thinking, Fagin would not. Krystal is also Jake’s girlfriend. Or he’s her bitch. Either way, she eyes up Star suspiciously.
There is no narrative arc as such. It is unfettered. It drifts. What happens, happens. Or at least that is what it feels like. The American landscape passes as they travel. The music is turned up real loud. Doors are knocked upon. There’s sex, drinking, fighting, robbing and doing that drug where you have to spark a bowl. (I honestly have no idea what that drug is.)
There are lyrical, arresting images of oil fields ablaze at night and trapped wasps. There are incidents, as when Star spends the afternoon with three men in cowboy hats who grill meat by the pool and we don’t ever find out why this might be significant. (You are primed to believe everything in a film has to be significant but perhaps this is more like life, where very little is.) There’s sexual and emotional tension between Star and Jake and Krystal, which drives the film somewhat, but not extensively. This is a film of mood, atmosphere, leitmotifs (insects, wild animals, dogs), allusions (The Wizard of Oz), and always being in constant motion towards nothing in particular. It’s a film about how the American dream does not work for those who are broken at the bottom of the pile. ‘I feel like I am America,’ Star cries at one point, standing up in an open-topped car, with her hair blowing in the wind. But we know this feeling of freedom is momentary, and it will be door knocking as per in the morning.
Ms Lane, who has never acted before and whom Arnold spotted on a beach in Florida, is an electric screen presence. She is bruised yet hopeful, dreamy yet defiant as she works out who she can trust, how to be independent,where beauty might lie. But the film is baggy and over-long — I grew tired at around the two-hour mark: ‘Turn that music down!’ — while I did not believe at all in the people who answered their doors, as they were all decent and never mean, which is not what it was like when I tried to sell encyclopedias door-to-door back in the day. So a few regrets, certainly, but not too many.