Moving their gaze to the US for the first time is often a major make or break moment for any British or Irish director. For every Steve McQueen-directed Shame, we get the confused and messy American debuts of both McDonagh brothers, Seven Psychopaths and War on Everyone. The sheer scale and ensuing madness of the States can be easy to get lost in, and it takes filmmakers of singular vision to tame this vast and unfamiliar land. Luckily for us, Andrea Arnold possesses that vision, capturing the flyover states in American Honey with an original story populated by a terrifically real ensemble brought to life by a cast largely made up of non-actors.
Clearly energised by the completely alien Midwest environment – an area so expansive and sparsely populated that bizarre encounters are inevitable – Arnold passes her first American test with flying colours. Not only can she marshal a non-professional cast (and also Shia LaBeouf), but in shooting in a shrunken aspect ratio, she manages to squeeze America into a manageable size, no mean feat, especially when you’re dealing with the enormity of the country’s centre. As lead character Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) traverses Kansas with a team of hard-partying young magazine salespeople, we get to see how people can easily slip through the enormous cracks of this largely rural society, but also how the strongest of bonds can be formed in this most isolating of places.
Desperate to leave behind a loveless relationship with a gropey good-for-nothing, Star takes up an offer from charismatic drifter Jake (LaBeouf) to join his sales team. Run by the incredibly controlling Crystal (Riley Keough), they come up with various scams to sell magazine subscriptions to people who are only really buying a salve for their guilty, middle-class conscience. It’s a business that requires a nomadic lifestyle, sleeping in motels or the team minibus, and lends itself to people who want nothing more than to make enough money for the next party.
Other than Star and Jake, characters aren’t really developed, acting more as extensions of the film’s overall mood and atmosphere, and to this end, the supporting cast do a great job. In casting non-actors, Arnold ensures that this gang of poverty-stricken runaways feels as authentic as possible, and it’s astounding how well LaBeouf fits in with this gaggle. He definitely gives a big performance, but he plays off of the rest of the cast expertly, and when he shares a scene with Keough, American Honey really takes flight. 21-year-old Lane is a real discovery in the lead, with an electric energy that lifts the entire film and ensures an exciting career.
At 165 relatively formless minutes, American Honey is definitely too long, with a few beats repeated too many times in a slightly bloated middle act, but spending time with this cast remains plenty of fun throughout. This is also a world that very few films give us access to, so it does take time to drink it all in and begin to appreciate and comprehend these markedly American lives. Just as the pace threatens to dip in to dullness, the last 15 minutes revive things spectacularly, perfectly concluding this ode to summer fun and friendship.
Summer is at the core of what makes American Honey great – one can only imagine how much sadder the story of youthful drifters gets in winter – and Arnold’s grasp of what summer means to young people is remarkably strong. Her camera and Star’s gaze become one and the same to the point where Robbie Ryan’s cinematography feels like its own character, every encounter and wild night clearly seen through the eyes of an 18 year old. If this level of quality is what we can consistently expect, then Arnold’s move to America is a hugely exciting one.