Star (Sasha Lane), a teenage girl with nothing to lose, joins a travelling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits (synopsis taken from IMDb)
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not a fan of overly long films. It’s rare that when I watch a film that crosses anywhere over the two hour mark, I sit back in my chair as the credits roll and opine: “well, every minute of that was completely necessary!”
It’s not because I’m a lazy film watcher. I just think stories benefit from being told at a certain pace, that having a restriction of, say, 90 minutes of screen time is a useful limitation for directors (see: Ingmar Bergman) who want to convey their message cleanly and subtly but still keep the audience engrossed from start to finish.
In many cases, the ‘coming of age’ movie gets away with having a lengthier run time, requiring the extra minutes in order to accurately convey the kind of complex changes happening within the protagonist during their long struggle into adulthood. In the case of American Honey, I barely noticed how long the film was (it clocks in at 2hrs 43mins) until it was nearly over, and this is surely a testament to how artfully director Andrea Arnold tells the story of its teenage misfit, Star.
Arnold manages to take a subject which (in my opinion) has been somewhat overdone by the movies – teenagers partying and having sex and breaking various laws – and make it utterly captivating, carving texture and meaning into every frame and pulling us into Star’s journey across the American Midwest with effortless ingenuity.
Part of Arnold’s technique is to find beauty in the smallest of moments; from a bug crawling up a wall (a symbol of Star’s own inability to ‘fly’) to a gummy bear stuck on a car window. Aesthetically, the camera is set to ‘handheld Polaroid-chic’ and makes use of naturalistic light wherever possible, making it feel wistfully nostalgic despite its present-day setting. This combined with the cast of relatively unknown actors, much of the time improvising their lines, gives the film its own special kind of sublime realism.
It wouldn’t be a teen drama without a ‘first love’, a narrative element that’s already rich with emotion and the potentiality for disaster, but is especially alluring thanks to the eruptive chemistry between Sasha Lane and Shia LeBouf’s Jake. The scenes between the two of them positively melt off the screen, and their magnetic performances are the film’s core. Lane was unknown before starring in this, and her inexperience works in her favour; her facial expressions are natural, and her combined grit and vulnerability has an authenticity that makes her ultra-watchable.
The other main theme which runs through the film (and is present in all of Arnold’s work) is class divide; the sales crew travels through the wealthiest and most poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, seizing on any opportunity to make money regardless of the moral implications in their methods. Although the film is underscored by marked social and economic inequality which is present in every scene, it’s not overwhelmed by it, this being a story that is focused more on Star’s inner journey and eventual blossoming.
The film’s final moments are some of the most quietly beautiful and sensual of the movie, and the story is left open, with Star emerging from the water triumphantly, having matured through the trials of pain and love and everything in between.