Review: Is ‘American Honey’ the beginning of a new beat generation?

Jake Bridgman ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

She says she’s 18, but she could be lying. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t care. Neither does anyone else. This is Star (Sasha Lane). She’s the impetuous wildflower who lives minute to minute, dollar to dollar. Where most kids her age would be knee-deep in homework, viewers meet Star knee deep in a dumpster, scavenging for any sustenance for her and her siblings.

In Andrea Arnold’s newest film, American Honey, viewers are flung into the beaten American West, somewhere in Oklahoma, planted in the forsaken prairie of empty strip malls and cracked highways. Sexually abused by a duplicitous drunkard who goes by “Daddy,” and abandoned by her mother, Star affixes herself a filthy van-travelling “mag crew” after discovering their wanton ways in breakdown dance-off in a supermarket. This band of feral misfits and broken children travel the southern midwest selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door in seemingly idyllic neighborhoods (though we actually see them as oppressors—the upper class reaping the benefits of lower class exploitation) and at night indulging in lavish partying in begrimed motels and patchy parking lots.

Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in American Honey. Photo Credit: A24
Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in American Honey. Photo Credit: A24.

Then the key compadres of the operation are introduced. There is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a slender ponytail, clashing attire wearing guy, who is full of alluring volatility. He’s the brawns. Then there is the brains—Krystal (Riley Keough). She’s the wolf-like den mother who is the coolly calculating chief executive of sorts, though she is barely any of the kids senior. Jake, the haughty firebrand, fuels his team with a kind of twisted, dilapidated promise of the American Dream. She’s the rigid capitalist among the group, strictly enforcing their business plan each day. Before each magazine run, they perform a cultish chant about getting money and working hard, creating this idealistic devotion to the American ideal. Star needs these authority figures so that she can fight against them and create conflict out of nothing.

This is the flagrancy and grandeur of the film. The film has essentially no discernable plot. There are no real plot points or narrative arcs, but this resonates symbolically in a variety of ways. The film is an odyssey about Star’s restless consciousness, a need to experience without any true goals. For example, the few sex scenes in the film are arresting in their quality of organic, non-performing passion. Each interaction – a terrifying encounter with an abrasive, Trump-like, oil worker, and an eager bout of love-making with Shia LaBeouf – exists only to get viewers into the headspace of our protagonist and feel her decisions as random but meaningful affirmations of self-assuredness. Star is a bundle of naïve tenacity, whose goals are aimless, but never without consequences; each encounter shifts the power dynamics. As Star gets closer to Jake, Krystal enforces law and order more strictly.

Sasha Lane in American Honey. Photo Credit: A24.
Sasha Lane in American Honey. Photo Credit: A24

The film’s beauty lies in its chaotic narrative algorithms which create a different kind of story. In this way, American Honey reads less in standard act structures, and more in an anthological coming-of-age travel journal full of contradictory emotions, senseless acts, espousing youthful iconoclasm with equal tenor to the beat generation classics such as  Kerouac’s On the Road, and Burrough’s Naked Lunch. The film has a brazen awareness of its environment. The film is shot on location, with actors for each scene being found on curbsides and in parking lots. Its realism isn’t faked—it’s a performed documentary of young impoverished life in midwestern America.

What’s more is that this lens of worn and torn Americana strife never makes judgment. It’s subjective but never prejudiced. Jake is manipulative and forceful, but never intrusive. Krystal has a sharp tongue and is the primary foil to Star’s reckless exuberance, but neither is truly a villain. The villains are the circumstances that surround every character. Each character is neither moral nor immoral, but truly complex and existing in a limbo of moral grayness.

The investment in the guileless authenticity of these characters’ antics sweeps the viewer up in a frenzy of bewilderment, anguish, and empathy in the purest sense. American Honey is a long, chaotic, and flowering journey that keeps viewers engaged and brutally aware. It’s a must-see for anyone looking to examine the darkest, untold parts of the American landscape.

Overall Grade: A

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