For her fourth feature film, Academy Award-winning British writer and director Andrea Arnold (“Fish Tank,” “Wuthering Heights”) focuses her substantial empathic capacity for the young, misunderstood and dispossessed on the United States. In “American Honey” she blurs the boundary between realism and fable to bare the soul of those millennials who, through circumstance, confound the stereotype of entitlement disparaging their generation.
Charismatic newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star, a stray we first meet while she’s scrounging in a grocery store dumpster for expired food, including a practically molten raw chicken, to help feed her charges, a young boy and girl. Her relation to the scruffy redhead and blonde is anyone’s guess; possibly step or half siblings through a man who refers to himself as “daddy” in a cruelly ironic way as he gropes Star.
Later, Star opens up about her life—that she’s from Texas and was dumped on relatives when her mom died from an addiction to meth—but those may be the only true statements anyone in this film makes. Arnold has crafted her script with more than the customary British antipathy toward exposition to underscore one of the film’s main ideas: life stories are narratives that can be modified to extort a desired reaction.
Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is the embodiment of this view. He’s concentrated, quirky energy skilled in offering others a version of himself that they require to give him what he wants, and Star falls in love at first sight. Honestly, who could blame her? In the run-down, depressed area of Oklahoma in which she’s now living, he’s the only one who’s open and alive. Star sacrifices her wards to their evidently negligent mother (their father isn’t “allowed” to have them, doubtless because he’s on the sex offender registry) to accept Jake’s offer of a chance to travel, but even more to spend some time with him.
Star joins the crew of other feral teenagers selling magazines door-to-door, traveling to Kansas City, North Dakota and beyond while bonding over sing-alongs to shared favorite songs on the radio—they all know the words. Still, Star rejects Jake’s chameleon sales lessons in favor of cutting to the truth. He’s squirrelly, but she’s quickly learning who she is and what it is she wants.
There are elements of documentary in the film. Arnold plucked the majority of the cast off the street, or, in the case of Lane, off a beach during spring break. The tattoos, the piercings, probably even the love of rap music are authentic, and the dialog, what little there is of it, seems genuine and likely improvised at some point (or else Arnold is uncannily capable of capturing American slang).
Yet, some elements are almost too on-the-nose to exist in this particular universe, such as a young girl who recites the Dead Kennedys’ “I Kill Children” or a bear that just comes for a quick visit. But these incidents, photographed in exquisite detail by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, are the reminder that the film is actually a fairy tale that Arnold has constructed for Star. It’s a new kind of parable in which a spirited young woman can explore and experiment without having to face the dangerous consequences as a punishment for having courage.