(Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival) Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, American Honey is the story of a teenage girl who joins a crew of traveling sales people on a road trip through America as she encounters love, chaos, and life lessons. The film is a road movie set in the American Midwest where a troubled teen from a dysfunctional family joins this group of misfits hoping to find some adventure in her life. Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, and Riley Keough. American Honey is a riveting and compelling film from Andrea Arnold.
The film revolves around the journey of an 18-year old woman who lives in a poor and dysfunctional family with kids whom she isn’t related to until she meets a young and charismatic salesman who is part of a gang of misfits selling magazines to people all over the country as she joins them on the road. It is a film with a simple premise as it explores this young woman from a poor and abusive environment who takes this job to go on the road and sell magazines with a band of misfits who are also from poor environments as a way to make money and have a good time. Andrea Arnold’s screenplay, which is based on a New York Times article by Ian Urbania, explores this culture where these kids are dropped off in sections of rich neighborhoods trying to sell magazines and make some money while displaying their sales to a boss who is only concerned with making money.
The main character named Star (Sasha Lane) is someone that lives in a home with two kids who are her half-siblings to a father who is sexually abusive as they barely can live through scraps. During a dumpster dive to find food and get a few things at a nearby Kmart, Star encounters this group of young kids wreaking havoc as they’re lead by this young man named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) who offers Star a chance to go on the road with him. She meets an assortment of people as she rides on a van where they’re taken to a destination and running the whole thing is Krystal (Riley Keough) who oversees all of the sales and slips as she has Jake take Star under his wing to train her. Yet, an attraction between Star and Jake start to unfold due to the former’s approach to getting a lot of money made yet Krystal is wary about this relationship as it starts to affect the work of the latter. The script also play into these locations that is the American Midwest and areas that are rich and poor where Star is selling magazines as she would make money through her own ways but also do things that would create tension between her, Jake, and Krystal.
Arnold’s direction is entrancing for the way she captures the world of the American Midwest as it is shot on various locations in Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Dakota with some of its cities such as Kansas City and Omaha being major locations in the film. Shot on the 4:3 full-frame aspect ratio, Arnold maintains intimacy through the framing while playing to the visual splendor of these different locations that these characters are venturing into. The usage of hand-held cameras is prevalent throughout the film while Arnold knows when to use wide and medium shots for these scenes set in certain locations. The aspect ratio also plays into the claustrophobic and cramped tone of the van’s interior where many of the young kids including Star often ride in from location to location as there is an air of excitement of this next location as kids sing along to songs that is on the radio and such. Arnold’s direction also has this sense of looseness through the usage of hand-held cameras as well as a realism as everything is done on the fly in the way Star would interact with people and how she would get a sale made.
Some of which would involve having her do things she’s not comfortable with but there are moments that prove to be heartfelt where she converses with a truck driver (Bruce Gregory) as it shows that Star isn’t willing to compromise her humanity to make a sale like everyone else has to do. Despite the money she makes, she still gets disapproving looks from Krystal while Jake becomes possessive towards her as some revelations occur during the film’s third act as it relates to Jake’s role that makes Star uneasy. It all plays into a cycle for these young kids who all play a role for a young woman who does what she can to make money as the third act also show how low Krystal would push her crew to make sales. Its ending is an open-ended one as it play into not just Star’s future but also these kids who don’t know what is going to happen to them as they all do what they can to just live. Overall, Arnold crafts a rapturous and intoxicating film about an 18-year old girl joining a band of misfits on a road trip to sell magazines and much more to live the American dream.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan does incredible work with the film’s cinematography as its emphasis on natural lighting and using available light for scenes at night add to the film’s realistic tone while maintaining a sense of beauty into the photography. Editor Joe Bini does amazing work with the editing with its stylish usage of jump-cuts to play into the energy of some of the music heard on location as well as play into the chaos of the lifestyle of these kids. Production designer Kelly McGehee, with set decorator Graham Wichman and art director Lance Mitchell, does excellent work with the look of the van as well as some of the motels and homes the kids would live in as well as the homes of some of the people they try to deal with. Costume designer Alex Bovaird does fantastic work with the costumes as it has a sense of style that play into the lives of these young kids as they largely wear baggy or skimpy clothing depending on how they present themselves to the people they’re trying to sell magazines to.
Makeup designer Anouck Sullivan does nice work with the look of Star and Krystal with the former looking natural and sometimes putting stickers on her face while the latter is often seen sporting lots of makeup as a form of power play. Sound editor Nicolas Becker does brilliant work in capturing much of the recorded material as well as the way conversations would sound inside the van or how music is played on location. Music supervisor Simon Astall does superb work with the film’s music soundtrack as it largely features a lot of the music of the late 2010s that kids listen to ranging from hip-hop and country as it features music from Juicy J featuring Wale and Trey Songz, Quigley, Rhianna with Calvin Harris, MadeinTYO, Sam Hunt, Lee Brice, Kevin Gates, Jeremih, E-40, Ciara featuring Ludacris, Rae Sremmund, Carnage featuring Migos, Lapsley, OG Maco, Raury, and Lady A as well as pieces from Steve Earle, Mazzy Star, Bruce Springsteen, and the Raveonettes.
The casting by Lucy Pardee and Jennifer Venditti is marvelous as it features an ensemble cast of non-actors, unknowns, and up-and-comers in some notable small roles that include Johnny Pierce II as Star’s sexually-abusive father Nathan, Brody and Summer Hunsaker in their respective roles as Star’s step-siblings Rubin and Kelsey, Chastity Hunsaker as Rubin and Kelsey’s neglectful stepmother, Bruce Gregory as a truck driver that Star befriends and sings a Suicide song covered by Bruce Springsteen, Laura Kirk as a Christian housewife whose daughter is doing sexually-provocative dance moves in front of Jake and Star during a sale, and Will Patton as a man that Star wins over to buy her magazines. The performances of the following in Veronnikah Ezell, Christopher David Wright, Shawna Rae Moseley, Dakota Powers, Isaiah Stone, Raymond Coalson, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Garry Howell, Chad McKenzie Cox, Crystal B. Ice, McCaul Lombardi, and Arielle Holmes are incredible as these young kids who become friends with Star as they have this charisma and energy about them as it adds to the realism of their performances as they are a highlight of the film.
Riley Keough is excellent as Krystal as the business manager and organizer of this rag-tag group of kids trying to sell magazines as she is someone that knows a lot on what to do but is also cruel in what she does to the young kids at times with a bigger disdain towards Star who she sees as a threat in getting Jake’s attention. Shia LaBeouf is brilliant as Jake as a veteran salesman with a rattail hairstyle that play into his unconventional presentation yet is someone that has charisma but also a dark side to him in the way he becomes possessive towards Star as well as be someone that is immoral at times in the way he tries to sell magazines to people. Finally, there’s Sasha Lane in a phenomenal performance as Star as an 18-year old kid from the white trash area of Oklahoma trying to find herself and meaning in her young life as she goes on the road with this band of misfits where she learns how to be salesperson but also find ways to make some good money but also maintain some morality and dignity. Lane also maintains this air of tenderness but also someone that is always having fun but also can do so much when she doesn’t say anything as it is a tremendous breakthrough performance from Lane.
American Honey is a tremendous film from Andrea Arnold that features an incredible discovery in Sasha Lane. Along with its ensemble cast, dazzling visuals, an emphasis on realism and grit, an eclectic music soundtrack, and its themes of trying to find identity and hope in the idea of the American dream. The film is truly an astonishing portrait of the American life as it explore a group of people who live on the fringes of society trying to do things their own way but also deal with this sense of the unknown in a world that is often ever-changing. In the end, American Honey is a magnificent film from Andrea Arnold.
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