This question lies at the heart of Andrea Arnold's American Honey, a sprawling, beautiful slice of modern Americana. Most films about the American Dream involve uncontrolled ambition, tales of greed, power, and excess like The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and more. American Honey is about the dream that this country was based on, but it takes a markedly different approach. Arnold's film is about small dreams. It centers around people whose stories are not usually told on film, members of the lower and middle class who have been destroyed by the economy in recent years. The dreams in American Honey are small- owning a trailer, having a boat, spending time with the person you love the most- but nonetheless, they're still dreams. Arnold's alternate look at the defining dreams of our country is hopeful, stunning, and epic all at the same time, an indie film about finding the good in any bad situation.
As American Honey opens, we find Star (Sasha Lane) rummaging through a dumpster, as two small kids wait outside of it to see what she finds. Star discovers a few food scraps and a whole chicken- food for their dog. After she crawls out of the dumpster, Star and the kids head to a local K-Mart to get something to drink. On the way, they're passed by a large van, thumping loud club music and flying down the street. When they get inside the store, Star sees a group of scrappy teens, and as Rihanna's "We Found Love" starts blaring over the speakers, they all start dancing. Star is quickly eyed by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a charismatic teen clad in black suspenders and a white shirt. He tells Star that he's part of a crew that sells magazines door-to-door, and that she should come with them to Kansas City. After going home to think about it for a day and dealing with her abusive step-father, Star leaves in the middle of the night, sleeping outside the van of the "mag crew." The next morning, they're off to the races.
And just like that, American Honey's story begins, a kaleidoscopic trip through the heart of America that will change Star's life permanently. The mag crew is run by Krystal (Riley Keough), a domineering, driven girl with a chilly Southern twang. Krystal's message to Star is clear- make me money, or you're out of the crew. There's always the threat that the crew's authoritarian leader could drop them at any moment, but that never stops them. They're all young and they all party like there's no tomorrow. Between drunken late-night parties, trips through suburban neighborhoods in the hopes of selling more subscriptions, and aimless conversations, the crew will grow closer together than ever before. But most importantly, Star and Jake's relationship will evolve in new ways, giving the young couple their first taste of true love. As the crew delves deeper into the desolate Midwestern landscape, will they ever find what they're looking for? American Honey doesn't always find an answer to that question, but it sure is one hell of a ride.
American Honey is incredibly authentic, which is probably its defining characteristic. Every single character feels like a real person, and there's no cinematic artifice to be found at all. Moments of intimacy have an appropriate level of awkwardness, conversations between characters are grounded in reality, and most of the scenes almost feel improvised, which is certainly a compliment. With this film, Arnold has created what quite possibly could be one of the most low-key epics ever made, a marathon-length film defined less by its cinematic grandeur and more by a profound emptiness and a search for connection. In a way, it feels like a nice companion piece to Boyhood, an indie saga defined by its focus on individual moments. But the fact that Arnold can bring those singular scenes together to form a grander statement on youth and hope makes American Honey all the more impressive.
Arnold's direction is subtly spectacular, never feeling too showy or ostentatious despite a few visual quirks. Her movement with the camera is excellent, panning across the landscapes of the American Midwest and focusing on each beautiful little eccentricity or strange oddity. Arnold captures the scenery with a magical emptiness, which gives the film both a melancholy sense of desperation and an alluring optimism. The unique 1.37:1 aspect ratio limits the frame to a certain extent, but Arnold still manages to find so much to capture and concentrate on. She finds love and happiness in the small things, and it's made all the more impressive by the fact that it feels so natural. Nothing in American Honey feels mechanized or fake- it's all coming from a place of genuine love and intrigue, which is so unusual in today's cinematic world. She has created a raw and essential portrait of a place and a group of people, bolstered by an incredible soundtrack and some stellar direction.
Arnold receives a big boost from her cast as well, which is filled with mostly unknown actors. The story behind the movie is that Arnold found most of these actors on her own, approaching them on the street and casting them in the movie. Her greatest discovery is unquestionably Sasha Lane, the enigmatic and radiant center of American Honey's universe. Star is both relentlessly romantic and deeply damaged, which Lane is able to convey at pretty much every turn. You can see the pain, the anguish in her eyes, but her smile and cheery optimism masks it well. Lane is terrifically paired with Shia LaBeouf, who along with Riley Keough is one of the few professional actors in the film. After years in the Disney/Michael Bay universe, LaBeouf has finally come into his own as an actor, delivering a great performance as a character that perfectly utilizes his gruff charisma and humor. Jake feels like a loose cannon and a born liar, but he's so likable that the audience never turns on him, a testament to how good LaBeouf is in this film.
American Honey may be too meandering and esoteric for some tastes, but it's a film that should speak to everyone (especially young people) on some kind of level. It has a universal message that is as essential and important as anything you'll hear in a film this year, and it made me so ecstatic to see it come to life in this gorgeous film. Led by the sensational performances of Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf, American Honey is a wonderfully crafted movie for the moment, a story of desperation, dreams, and poverty that is as hopeful as it is desolate. It may be a tad obvious, but there's a reason that "We Found Love" is the anthem for this film. American Honey is a nearly three hour long epic about finding happiness in the hopelessness, and to me, that's something worth celebrating.
THE FINAL GRADE: B+ (7.7/10)
Images courtesy of A24