American Honey

 

            Writer and Director Andrea Arnold found newcomer Sasha Lane on the beach at Spring Break.  She had just exactly the look that Ms. Arnold had been searching for, and there's no question that the camera loves Sasha.  What's less certain is if we viewers love her character, Star.

            First, we feel sorry for her.  We first meet Star while she's picking food out of a garbage bin, and giving it to a couple of little kids who are with her.  Then they hitchike back to the apartment.  At first, we think she's too young to have kids---the little boy looks around 4, the girl maybe 9 or 10.  But though it's never really explained, we later surmise that the kids aren't hers, but some kind of step siblings, who don't look at all like her. 

            It's inside a Kmart that Star first encounters Jake (Shia LaBeouf).  He's cavorting around with a bunch of late teen/young adult types, running and chasing each other and occasionally standing on countertops, but she's immediately attracted to Jake's energy.  He drops his phone inside the store, and when she returns it to him, in the parking lot with her two kids in tow, he invites her to go away with them.  To Kansas.  To sell magazine subscriptions.  It'll be fun.

            Star is just responsible enough to not leave the kids standing there by themselves in the parking lot, but jettisoning them is not easy.  She finally finds the Stepmom at a country bar, learning a line dance, and she does not seem at all interested in taking them back, even if Star has found a job.  But Star says she has to go to the bathroom, and runs out the door into the dark night of freedom.  She finds the van outside the Motel 6, where Jake said they would be, and she just falls asleep in the parking lot next to the van.  The next morning, Jake says, “I knew you'd come.”  When Star says “How'd you know that?, he replies “Because you like me.”

            And she does.  But it turns out he's not really the leader of the group.  He's the recruiter for the woman who is, Krystal (Riley Keough, who happens to be Elvis Presley's granddaughter!).  Krystal is a tough taskmaster.  She tells her charges that they have to sell or they're out.  They'll be left behind.  She'll provide the food and the hotel rooms, and occasionally, the outfits she wants them to wear.  They'll work when and where they're told.  Star's happy to go along for the ride.  Almost anything would be better than what she was doing.  And of course the Lost Souls with her are in the same boat she is.

            They party hard---passing around the bottle in the van on their way to the posh suburbs.  They sing along with rap music, they trash talk each other, they invent these strange games together, like how the person who's sold the least that day has to run a kind of physical gauntlet from the group.  They are very casual around each other, and there's a lot of sexual energy abundant in their interactions, but Krystal, who travels separately in a convertible, insists on separate rooms for the other men and women at the hotels, except that she has a private room for herself, and can invite over any guy she wants.

            Star soon learns that the technique of selling magazine subscriptions is really just about lying to get money.  Jake teaches her to tell people anything---they're working their way through college, they're orphans, their parents died in Afghanistan, they're in a competition where the winner gets a scholarship.  Anything to “hook” the people into buying a subscription.  Star doesn't like the tactics, but enjoys being with the group, and has a crush on Jake, despite the fact that he tells her plainly that he's not ready to be exclusive with anyone.  And when the inevitable happens, and they do get together, the energy is fierce, but that's all there is.  Along the way, we learn that Star can also be quite the tease and manipulator when she wants to be, but seems unheeding of the danger with strangers.  It's a reckless, raucous, even raunchy kind of nomadic existence.  We sure don't admire her, and we're not even sure we really like her, but we still can't take our eyes off her. 

            “American Honey” is rambling, inconsistent, irreverent, too long, often boring, and constantly scatalogical.  Worse, it appears to glamorize irresponsible con artists.  It's certainly not one for the church youth group.  But it just might be known as the vehicle for a Star being born.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  When have you massaged the truth in order to convince someone else to buy something?

2)                   When have you wanted to just hit the open road, not even sure where it was taking you?

3)                  When have you wanted to be part of a rowdy group just because they looked like fun people to be around?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association