American Honey

Scott Wallace
31st Oct 2016

American Honey is full of music - most often blaring from car stereos, but also from tinny speakers in a discount department store, or heard through the paper-thin walls of an old house. In American Honey, music brings high-flying romance, but unlike other films it hardly ever lets melodies resolve. When the keys turn in the ignition, the music cuts off abruptly, and we are snapped back to sweltering, tiresome reality.

This original and inventive new film from Red Road and Fish Tank writer and director Andrea Arnold, just like her last two features, won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Unlike those films, though, this time the English filmmaker has set her sights on the mid-western United States, where she articulately and poetically examines the way the imbalance in the distribution of wealth has disenfranchised the United States' poorest citizens. The pursuit of money drives everything in this film, but at its centre is a protagonist whose selflessness is simultaneously transcendent and utterly believable.

The incredible Sasha Lane who, like a majority of the cast, was discovered on the street with very little prior acting experience, plays eighteen-year-old Star. When the film begins, Star is picking through garbage for food with two young children who it soon becomes apparent are not her own kin, but the children of her volatile and much older boyfriend. A chance encounter with the strange but charming Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a parking lot leads Star to dream of leaving her desperate life behind, and after attempting to ensure the safety of the children, she climbs into a bus loaded with other young people headed to Kansas City to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door.

Inevitably, a spiralling, complex romance begins between Star and Jake as they are paired up to sell magazines together. They are both impulsive, but in vastly different ways - he is covetous, she is passionate. Lane and LaBeouf make these differences apparent with their nuanced and magnetic performances. The rest of the gang, particularly fearsome matriarch Krystal (Riley Keough) and the Darth Vader-obsessed Pagan (Arielle Holmes) are played with the same depth that makes them feel like fully three-dimensional people from their very first introduction.

Throughout American Honey, fragile joy and bravado give way to deep-rooted sadness in barely perceptible, but hugely affecting ways. Slivers of truth about these characters' lives emerge without being spoken as we also learn to what lengths they will go to fulfil their meagre dreams to no longer have to live hand-to-mouth. The crew shout along to the hedonistic lyrics of booming rap music, apparently unaware of the irony. The film also presents much broader truths, as the team's quest to sell magazines to people who have no need for them takes them through a cross section of America, from rich suburban families, to cowboys living in modern townhouses and driving convertibles, to truckers deprived of their families on the road, to dirtied oil field workers earning $100,000 a year.

American Honey is a long film, approaching three hours in length, but despite its meandering nature it never feels as if a minute is wasted. There are many lengthy scenes taking place in the minibus that ferries the motley crew of young people from place to place to spin whatever lies they can to make money. Conversations overlap, seemingly inane but loaded with meaning. Shot on hand-held cameras, in an unusual almost-square 1:1.33 aspect ratio, the film is totally immersive, seating the audience right beside them.

The film ultimately explores the nexus point where dreams must end and reality begins - where escapism is no longer possible. In exploring the lives of these very real characters, it upends the commonly accepted notion that a better life is just waiting for those who work hard. It both juxtaposes and draws parallels between the rich and the poor, creating a vital and urgent picture of the state of America and of the world; All anyone wants is to be free, but freedom can be bought, given or taken away.

American Honey opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday November 3rd.