American Honey introduces you to Star, played with a natural ease by Sasha Lane, within moments of the film’s start. There are no opening credits to ease you into the fictional filmic landscape. Instead, you are immediately confronted with Star’s environment, her dysfunctional family, and the challenges she faces in Middle-America. Our eighteen-year-old protagonist appears on the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride for she and her younger siblings, holding a quickly defrosting turkey, as she’s taxed with the responsibility of being a mother-figure, despite her young age. Their biological mother is too busy drinking and line-dancing. And her father, we discover, is abusive. Eventually Star makes it back to her rundown family home, replete with a tattered American flag serving as the only curtain for the living room window. This is Trump’s America. Under-employed, under-educated, with an underlying layer of sleaze. Star has never known a better life, but she knows she needs to leave town. Not tomorrow, not someday; she needs to leave immediately.
Star’s potential salvation comes in the form of Jake, played by Shia LaBeouf, decked out in a long, braided “tail.” He invites Star to join him on the road with a misfit teenaged, magazine-selling brigade, all with unfortunate stories of their own. But rather than spend time on exposition, detailing the depressing stories of each character, we are able to draw our own conclusions about the back stories of these kids. Instead, we go on a cross-country adventure with this carload of pot-smoking partiers, who are just happy to survive one day at a time. On the road they are free; from their families’ drama, their broken homes, and whatever they chose to leave in the past. The present is all that matters now.
As is the case with many road movies, it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that is important. The literal journey frames the more symbolic journey Star undertakes as she learns to navigate adulthood in her own way. Issues of economic stratification, sexuality, consent, and responsibility all play a role in Star’s maturation process. While this is a love story of sorts, with a tumultuous blooming romance between Star and Jake, this film is really about exploring the stark divide between the haves and have nots across the U.S. Star’s search for her identity parallels her discovery of the spectrum of American economic disparity.
Sasha Lane gives an understated and pitch perfect performance in this breakthrough role of Star, while Shia LaBeouf is convincing as the slightly more mature, yet equally as lost and angry Jake. Director Andrea Arnold establishes a painfully realistic world, presenting a bleak view of Americana. Arnold directs in the style of Larry Clark’s Kids, which is to say, starkly natural. Her actors are totally believable in their roles. Her cast consists mainly of unknowns, adding to the realism of the film.
This isn’t a fun film, by any stretch of the imagination. You may find yourself wanting to fast-forward through scenes that drag on, but that pacing is part of the realism. If you have the patience, there are a few tension-fueled scenes that will pay off. But don’t expect much action. This is Star’s story, and the real value of the film lies in Sasha Lane’s ability to both draw you in and repel you at the same time.