I’m not sure where to start when it comes to discussing American Honey, as it appears to have polarised audiences to the extent that the only way to ascertain its quality, or lack thereof, is to watch it for yourself. The appeal of this film is seemingly very personal, with its array of vibrant and memorable characters providing us with an invigorating story of fractured America and disenchanted youth, at times touching on poverty and race in a far more subtle, yet hardened fashion than many directors attempt. American Honey isn’t unlike director Andrea Arnold’s 2009 British council estate-set, Fish Tank, in which a similar ensemble of deprived, socially-isolated characters attempt to find a place in the bleak and destitute urban backdrops they find themselves in. Evidently, in her attempts to capture a snapshot of life and the essence of the human spirit, Arnold is incredibly adept when it comes to creating believable and genuinely affecting drama.
We are introduced to the titular ‘American Honey’ at the film’s opening, in the form of 18 year old Star, who has taken on the role of caring for her younger brother and sister in the absence of her neglectful mother and stepfather. From the very outset we are given a sense of the financial hardship and deprivation of the most basic of amenities that Star and her siblings have to deal with. This is clearly a backdrop they were born into, and has thus become the norm, indicated by the way she routinely and nonchalantly rifles through trash in the opening shots, in the hope of finding unspoiled food to feed her family. In a chance encounter with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) at a gas station, Star is offered the opportunity to leave behind everything she knows and join a rag-tag group of misfit youths who travel across the Midwest and sell magazines. This is where the bulk of the film’s events take place. Throughout the film’s run time, not only does Star find herself becoming more and more involved with Jake, the unpredictable rogue who sparks her interest in joining the group initially, but also learns more about herself, her own capabilities, her disillusionment with America’s white middle classes, and the sheer scope of the world which lies beyond her uninspiring hometown setting.
Star’s journey is a joyful and liberating one, but isn’t without its moments of struggle and contemplation. Much of the beauty of the experiences shared by her and the others is elicited by the incredible cinematography which underpins the film. It captures individual moments in a visually-captivating, yet fragmented style, working to translate the subliminal emotions of each scene in an unceremonious way and thus act as a viewing platform into what could easily be real life unfolding before us. It feels almost cliché to point out, but I did truly lose myself to the point where I forgot I was watching a film, and it’s moments like this which remind me of the power of film as a medium of escapism. Some of the most memorable shots didn’t even contain any dialogue, any character interaction, or even any people, often focusing on the backs of heads, or aspects of nature; glowing city lights, insects flying through waist-high grass, the turquoise and orange hues of a fading sunset. The camera lingers on the smallest, yet most breathtakingly beautiful details, in the same way the human eye would, which is something I have noticed tends to divide opinion, but it is undeniably ambitious.
Despite its heady and exhilarating feel, the film often exudes a potent sadness. There is definitely a sense that most of these characters are broken in some way, yet Arnold respects her audience in the way we are never forced or manipulated into liking them. Each character is presented as nothing more or less than an imperfect person trying to figure out where they belong, exhibiting the capacity for love, mistakes and above all a yearning for acceptance, like any of us. It is on this basis that we are able to empathise and appreciate these characters and their many facets, and the reason why American Honey was such a pleasure to watch. Its sprawling, unscripted nature isn’t something that will appeal to everyone, but if anything I’ve said here appeals to you then don’t hesitate to see it. It’s not often cinema is as refreshingly raw and unadulterated as this.