American Honey, a sprawling ramble across the parched backroads of the southern United States, is a journey that becomes a ride-or-die in one of its opening scenes. After unsuccessfully hitching a ride home from salvaging precious little discarded supermarket scraps, the sunlight so piercing that the pungent smell is palpable even on a screen, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) and her two younger siblings head for the local Walmart in search of a small mercy of Mountain Dew. While the siblings quickly head for the fluorescent-lit refrigerators holding the golden green liquid, Star hangs near the front of the store, watching children sift through cages of rubber balls to lengthen their time in the air-conditioned oasis. Then, as if Star was living in a Mountain Dew commercial itself, We Found Love starts to play.
In a sea of rubber rings, balloons, and cheap t-shirts, she catches the eye of a young man. If the long braid and dress pants with braces and a button down shirt but looking slightly rumpled and carrying himself in a way that suggests irony didn’t give away his character, it’s his response to his charged and playful locking of eyes with Star. They hold each other’s gaze for a couple of moments. He jokingly points to himself as to ask whether Star is looking at him and she sticks her tongue out in response, childish in the midst of a multicoloured plastic wonderland. But then he heads to the end of the cash registers, dancing on top of one with his similarly dressed crew before being chased away by security.
The combination of Rihanna and spontaneous dancing in superstores will mean eye rolls from some and affectionate laughter from others, but for the latter it’s an invitation to join and explore this world of uniquely and vibrantly personified figures. Eighteen years old and stuck in an abusive relationship as well as caring for her siblings, it’s one that Star takes. It’s a desperate opportunity at something better, something more youthful brought about by chance. Except here, chance is a bejeweled iPhone, dropped in the midst of fleeing from security like a upside-down modern day Cinderella glass slipper. Venturing to the carpark that seems to stretch for yonder, she returns it to the mysterious serenader (Jake, played Shia LeBeouf) and is given a simple proposition in a few, confidently mumbled words – selling magazines door-to-door. “We explore, like, America,” he says with a charismatic smile.
While the prospect of selling magazines when the industry has all but disappeared seems like an impossible idea, it’s a controversial industry in the United States (“traveling crews have been exploiting young workers and scamming customers for decades,” The Atlantic said in 2015) that sees teenagers working long hours for low wages. For Star, Jake, and company, as well as the film itself, the appeal isn’t the magazines, of course. It’s being anywhere than the place they started from. It’s a Lord of the Flies type deal – all fun, games, and camaraderie, singing along to rappers and sharing bottles of liquor, until their leader makes the two lowest sellers of the week fight it out.
The leader in question is Krystal (Riley Keough), a straight-talking, no-nonsense type who wears her makeup and clothes like armour. In one of the film’s best scenes, she asserts her power over a stern conversation in a motel room, clad in a confederate flag bikini with the swing tag still dangling from the hip while being lathered up with bronzing lotion by Jake. Jake also drives her convertible with her in the passenger seat between towns. Such overt femininity is usually portrayed as a weakness, it’s refreshing to see it Arnold writes and as Keough portrays Krystal. “She’s a bitch until she gets to know you,” one of the crew members says. She may be protective and callous but that’s out of necessity – it’s a hard world she finds herself in, undoubtedly running away from something too, one where this ragtag family can turn in on itself in an instant.
Krystal, played by Keough with a raw and magnetic intensity, is one of many colourful characters in American Honey. They’re characters that Arnold creates so intricately with so few details, that the camera could’ve turned in any direction and become their story. There’s the quiet, mysterious Pagan (Arielle Holmes of Heaven Knows What), who carries a Chewbacca backpack and reads unspeakable depth into Star Wars characters. There’s Sean (Kenneth Kory Tucker), who hides a squirrel in his hat; and a new recruit that prefers rock music to the never ending rotation of rap that becomes a heartbeat of sorts to the long drives. They’re funny and wounded and fully-formed, all naturally charismatic and intriguing, people usually dismissed and laughed at in film. Despite Krystal’s choice of flag emblazoned attire broadcasting some views that are unfavourable, her and the rest of the group are looked upon without judgement. Just like the runtime is necessary (the film runs just shy of three hours), every little detail revealed in conversation is crucial to creating the world of the film.
Arnold is the director of an earthy adaptation of Wuthering Heights back in 2011, Fish Tank, Red Road, and the Oscar-winning short Wasp, all of which are a slightly more subversive spin on the social realism the British are known for. They’re characters in worlds often forgotten or looked at with a rose-tinted lens, fetishising tragedy. But whether Arnold is following an aspiring teenage hip hop dancer desperate to go beyond the life she’s trapped in, or a mother of three young children reuniting with a former flame for an afternoon; she refuses to pass judgement. In a world of cynicism and division, Arnold’s tendency to humanise and sympathise instead of judge is unsettling. This is reality, but there is no venomous spirit, no pointing and laughing here.
It’s an addictive atmosphere Arnold creates through her natural direction and performances, one that’s pulsingly electric and makes not only the film breeze by, but one also wishes it went for longer. Arnold’s loose but engrossing scripting doesn’t aim for tight narratives or sweeping ideas that serve to complicate, but instead the air of the experience – the people, the experiences, the late night talks of dreams, the fights, the memories; equally hilarious and heartbreaking that is somehow a respite from the malice of today. One is not often invited on such a rewarding journey. Take it, Rihanna and all.