I like drifters. I am fascinated by them because I am not one of them, and never really have been. Story-wise, you never know what’s going to happen to them, or where they will go. Neither do they. Their stories are full of surprises, and screenwriters and directors often use them as the center of a road movie, the kind that doesn’t seem to have a destination. Star, the young heroine in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, played by newcomer Sasha Lane, is not a drifter in the strictest sense, but she is on the road because she’s had it with her old life: looking after two kids that are not her own, avoiding her lecherous boyfriend, eating out of dumpsters, being broke. Something needs to happen, and soon.
Something happens. There is a van full of loud, brazen kids pulling up in a super-market parking lot. Star looks on as they sing and dance their way through the check-out lanes and get thrown out by security. Especially Jake (Shia LaBeouf), slightly older and bolder than the others, has caught her eye. He offers her a job selling magazine subscriptions in Kansas City. It’s the way out she has been waiting for. The van is full of kids like herself, slightly clueless, full of themselves, impulsive. While Jake is responsible for the group because he invents the smartest sales pitches, he answers to Krystal (Riley Keough), who lays down the law. (To wit: the worst two salespersons regularly have to beat each other up. Welcome to Chuck Palahniuk’s Glengarry Glen Ross.) Now Star has a problem: she cannot sell stuff to people who don’t want or need it. She sabotages Jake’s sales pitch and is told off by Krystal. She weakens her standing with the gang and its leaders, and she also endangers her tentative feelings for Jake, but her bullshit detector is ringing too loud for her to be ignored.
Sasha Lane is perfect for the role. She doesn’t seem to have an acting persona, but uses her own personality and then reacts to what happens around her. Her Star is insecure, like any teenager would be, but she has drawn a line for herself that she does not cross. Maybe Arnold saw all that in Lane and wrote the screenplay with her in mind. She is a fresh face, like Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank. Arnold encountered both Jarvis and Lane in everyday life and cast them in main roles. With the exception of LaBeouf and Keough and Will Patton in a small role, everyone in American Honey is a fresh face and not subject to any polished school of acting. While Jarvis’ Mia went around antagonizing everyone, Star is at ease being with the gang, drinking, smoking, getting high, secretly shagging Jake and trying not to get into Krystal’s crosshairs.
Since Star has chosen honesty as her sales pitch, she has to work harder. There is a convertible with three good ol’ boys. She tells them she hasn’t sold any magazines. Get in, they say, and offer her a beer. They bring her to a villa with a swimming pool where they prepare a barbeque. The old men look at the young girl who gets out of the pool dripping wet. There is an atmosphere of danger here: the three guys seem friendly enough, but a bottle of mescal is passed around. Star offers to drink the dregs with the worm if the three gentlemen cough up 400 dollars’ worth of subscription money. They do. She drinks the worm. The money is hers. That Jake turns up, armed and jealous, is a side effect to her. She has earned that money her way. Star and Jake take the money and run, stealing the convertible in the process. This time around, the old men’s eager looks at her were enough, but there is a scene near a burning oil field where she is asked to go further. A line is crossed, and she no longer feels comfortable with herself or her job. There is the danger of sliding towards prostitution if things go on this way. Star is no good at all in avoiding conflict, or, for that matter, conflict resolution – how could she be, since nobody ever taught her how? She only is very, very good at getting out of it, leaving a mess behind, whether it is her fault or not. There are no father or mother figures throughout the movie. Jake is not fatherly, just as Krystal isn’t motherly. It’s not soppy, and it’s not a romance. If you liked Fish Tank, you should like this one, too.
Movies like this one usually do not age very well: who cares about a bunch of teenagers selling magazine subscriptions door to door in the internet age, dancing to Rihanna’s pop songs? That sound like the movie needs to be saved from its own mediocrity. It’s far from mediocre: Sasha Lane is marvelous, the filming uses its queasy-cam a lot, but it works, and Dutch angles are right for this kind of story. It’s two hours and 45 minutes long, but it feels shorter. The kids remain somewhat schematic, but as I am writing this, I rememeber Pagan with her obsession with Darth Vader, the guy who shakes his dick at the others, the skateboarder guy, the driver with his guitar. See? They stuck with me just by being themselves, by being there. Plus there is an unforced and repeated reference to birds and flying insects, so much so that the accountant in me wants to go back and count them. That is a metaphor for Star, probably, fledgling and wanting to spread her wings.
Until the end, I really thought that Krystal played a Ponzi sceme with the lot of them. The subscription slips and the team talk could have been a scam. I suspected that Jake could have been in on it, but turns out, it’s all legit. The reason why Krystal sounds like a con artist is that she must have done years of the same door-to-door routine, and now she is the woman organizing her own gang and keeping Jake, her best salesman, happy by letting him put on her tan while Star is in the room with them. There is sexual jealousy everywhere: between Star and Jake, Star and Krystal, Krystal and Jake, and among the members of the gang. Some sleep with whoever is available, regardless of gender. The next day, all is forgiven and forgotten, and everybody sings along at the top of their voice to some misogynist hip-hop tune. The movie could have gotten twee, or downtrodden, or simply sad, but American Honey is full of hope, beautiful to look at. There is a kind of stubbornness in Star that I would love to call my own. There is a moment when Star is asked: “What plans do you have for the future?” Her answer: “No-one has ever asked me that.”