Two of the most enduring subjects in films are the road trip and a young person's coming of age, and Cannes Jury Prizewinner American Honey addresses them both in ways that are fresh yet familiar. The film is something of a cinematic paradox, sprawling and ambitious in both its length (163 minutes) and breadth (filmed across Oklahoma, Kansas, and North and South Dakota), while telling an hypnotic yet plotless story. Its cast is largely made up of non-actors writer/director Andrea Arnold discovered on various road trips, but it also includes the star of the first three Transformers movies, part of the biggest franchise in movie history. It's about poor kids in a van hustling magazine subscriptions, as well as the American Dream in the 21st century. Intrigued? You should be. Watch the trailer for American Honey below.
American Honey opens on a young woman named Star (Sasha Lane) somewhere in the Midwest as she and two small children root through a dumpster in search of food. Stuck with a boyfriend and responsibilities that have become intolerable, and with no parents or role models in sight, Star sees a possible escape when she encounters a rowdy, fun-loving van full of teenagers in a Kmart parking lot. Chaperoned by sweet-talking "adult" Jake (Shia Labeouf), the group is a "mag crew" -- young people hired/scammed with promises of fun, adventure, and big money who travel the country selling magazine subscriptions door to door. With nothing to lose, no one keeping her, and with sparks flying between her and Jake, why wouldn't Star go along?
Thus begins American Honey's and Star's journey, fueled by marijuana, alcohol, processed food, a sense of family, an eclectic playlist of music, and dreams of the kind of wealth, excess, and freedom the crew has only heard about in the rap songs they know by heart. Between long hours on the road, long days wandering neighborhoods, and long nights of partying in seedy hotels, Star and the crew get glimpses of American Dreams in varying conditions throughout the heartland. With Star getting lessons from Jake, the crew's top salesman, about how to quickly size up potential customers and serve them the most effective lies to win their sympathies, Star hustles subscriptions in affluent, newly built McMansions to run-down, poverty-stricken trailers, as well as truck stops and camps for workers wringing the last from America's natural gas boom.
What makes American Honey such an unconventional coming-of-age story is that Star and the other mag crew kids, with no parents to speak of, have been forced to grow up fast before the movie has begun. But within the world of the mag crew, it's as if they get some of their carefree young adulthood back. Life on the road is like a combination of summer job, school trip, internship, and college dorm experience -- a chance for crewmembers to dip their toes in adult life from the relative safety of a group of likeminded peers. There are opportunities for intimacy, sex, and love, with all of the emotional and physical risks they can entail. If anything, American Honey downplays the dangers of the mag crew industry, which were detailed in a 2007 New York Times exposé and were even the subject of a Congressional investigation in 1987. The potential cruelty of mag crew life is largely embodied by Krystal (Riley Keogh), the crew's icy boss who threatens underperformers with abandonment and violence, while using her control over Jake to thwart his burgeoning relationship with Star.
While American Honey's 163-minute running time is certainly daunting, it never felt long to me and easily held my interest for the film's duration. Perhaps that's because American Honey is such a raw, immersive experience. With its naturalistic, non-lit camerawork and cast of non-actors working largely without a script, viewers are given the chance to join Star and her mag crew cohort and witness how young people today interact with each other while attempting to grab whatever they can from an adult world that seems to have little to offer them. There are good times, down times, outbursts of joy and beauty, and moments of tension and menace that remind you of the vulnerability of youth. And while Sasha Lane's breakout performance has placed her on the precipice of stardom as Labeouf gives his best performance in years, the focal point of American Honey is youth itself, and the hope that the lessons of adulthood can be learned with souls intact.