American Honey (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Selling and drifting on the road

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“American Honey”, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, gives us a vivid, realistic glimpse into a certain type of lifestyle which is not so familiar to many of us. Because I had never heard about its subject, I observed the movie with curiosity, and then I found myself gradually involved in its seemingly aimless journey with a bunch of young characters wandering around the American midwestern regions. I was excited by a number of small but wonderful musical moments brimming with life and spirit, and I also felt a bit saddened as observing that its characters will probably go on and on until they are no longer young.

In the beginning, we meet Star (Sasha Lane), a poor adolescent girl living in some town located in Oklahoma. Because her stepmother left her and her two younger siblings and her father is nothing but an alcoholic bum, she is the one in charge of taking care of her family, and the opening scene shows her searching a trash container and then eventually finding something fairly edible: a package of frozen chicken which is almost thawed now.

When she and her two younger siblings are around a town supermarket building, a van passes by them, and then she comes across Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his fellow young drifters. When Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ song “We Found Love” is played in the building, these young people joyously dance to the music, and that brief moment of joy and freedom surely impresses Star. When she approaches to Jake later, he gives her a chance to join his bunch, and she grabs it as hoping for the escape from her poor neighbourhood.

Mainly through Jake, Star comes to learn how to earn money like other members in the bunch. Under the strict management by Krystal (Riley Keough), who is the forewoman of the bunch, they have to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door during their work time, and Krystal emphasizes to Star that she will not be generous to anyone who does not earn enough.

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Jake has always been the number one salesman in the bunch, and Star watches how he works when they go together around a suburban neighborhood. When he rings the doorbell of one house, a teenager girl opens the door, and he quickly ingratiates himself with that girl. When that girl’s mother appears, he swiftly moves his focus to her, and we get a humorously tense moment as he tenaciously tries to persuade that woman to buy anything. The woman does not seem to be persuaded at all, but he keeps talking and talking while the woman’s daughter is having a fun, lively musical time with other girls outside, and this situation is eventually punctuated by Star when she refuses to go along with his tactic.

Instead of being plot-driven, the movie drifts around such good scenes like that as its characters move from one region to another. At one point, Jake and Star come across a trio of apparently affluent middle-aged guys, and this encounter leads to an amusing scene unfolded around the swimming pool of a big house. When Star and other members of the bunch approach to a group of oil field workers, we get another wonderful musical moment as the aforementioned song by Rihanna and Calvin Harris is played, and then it is followed by an unnerving private moment between Star and a worker who makes an offer she cannot refuse easily.

And we get to know the bunch a bit as feeling the sense of community around them. Besides vividly capturing small and big moments of natural beauty on the screen, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who previously collaborated with director/writer Andrea Arnold in “Fish Tank” (2009) and “Wuthering Heights” (2011), did a splendid job of conveying the intimacy among characters whenever they spend time in their van, and the screen ratio of 1.37:1 furthers accentuates that. While Jake and Krystal are naturally more prominent in comparison, the other members of the bunch are colorful in each own way, and the performers playing these characters, most of whom are non-professionals, are believable as distinctive individuals to watch. McCaul Lombardi is particularly hilarious as a showier member of the bunch, and I also liked the gentle supporting performance by Arielle Holmes, who plays a shy, sweet girl in the bunch.

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In case of Sasha Lane, a non-professional performer who was picked by Arnold at the last minute, she is simply fabulous in her unadorned acting which is as memorable as Katie Jarvis’s equally impressive performance in “Fish Tank”. Beside a few early scenes which succinctly establish the world in which she has been stuck, the movie does not show or tell much about Star, but Lane makes every moment of hers in the film feel true and genuine, and she ably carries the movie even when the movie falters around its arrival point.

Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough are also very good in their respective roles. Suitably looking wily, shabby, and charming, LaBeouf shows that he is still a good actor despite his recent career trouble, and he and Lane click well together as their characters are slowly drawn to each other. Tough as nails as required, Keough has a couple of juicy moments, and I appreciate how she indirectly suggests her character’s hardened humanity during these scenes.

“American Honey” is not entirely successful. While its heroine’s journey is the whole point of the movie, the movie becomes a little too repetitive during its second half, and, in my opinion, the finale does not work as well as intended. Nonetheless, I admired its authentic mood and commendable performances, and I think it is another fascinating work from Arnold.

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