American Honey is the best fall release you’ve never heard of, and one of the best pictures to hit screens this year. Writer-director Andrea Arnold uses the road and the American Heartland as the backdrop to weave a blistering, mesmerizing, raw and ultimately hopeful portrait of forgotten American youths living on the fringes, peddling magazines door-to-door by day, partying by night and searching for something intangible and ineffable along the way.
Our entree into this world is Star, a young girl from miserable circumstances — think a drunk, waste of a mother, absent father, sexually-abusive step father, rooting around in a dumpster for a discarded, raw chicken in searing summer heat miserable — who impulsively takes a charming young man, Jake (Shia LaBeouf) up on his offer to join a sales crew headed for Kansas City. This band of misfits, all of whom presumably pass the initiation question “Is there anyone at home who’s gonna miss you?” become Star’s new reality, a surrogate family, with all the privileges and baggage that allows.
We follow them as they make roadside motels into temporary homes — sleeping in piles — marvel at Kansas City’s modest skyline and weather the pangs and pains of youth. However painful and grimy her past, Star emerges into the film a complex character. She has a chip on her shoulder, but she defiantly refuses to be defined but that life, rather, she starts allowing herself to believe in a new one. As much as she shows the unmistakable signs of having had to grow up still soon, she still has the remarkable compassion and fearlessness that comes with innocence. She rescues bugs and finds wonder in an oil field, but she also feels acute disgust at excess and the dismissive way in which some of the “haves” regard her. These shades of emotion are saturated throughout the film. There’s melancholy, nostalgia, hope, love, despair, anger, wonder, fear, lust and optimism.
As Star and the Crew wander across the country, we’re treated to landscape shots flooded with natural light and a quiet ache. And all of it in what appears to be bonafide film if the occasional grain and the square frame are to be believed. This, of course, heightens the intimacy in what’s already a personal journey. Clocking in at the better part of three hours, American Honey is more a marathon than a sprint, but it carries it’s duration beautifully. As much as we’re just along for the ride, there was no moment of let this be over. Instead, a sensation of a stolen interlude stole over me. Seeing this singular moment of life up there on the screen felt fleeting and precious in the moment, conscious as I was that it would be gone again when the credits rolled.
American Honey is transfixing, painfully beautiful and impossibly uplifting. Come for Shia and stay for a singular and essential cinematic experience.
If you want to know more, stay tuned for a Required Viewing about American Honey, because we couldn’t stop talking about this wonderful movie.