The road trip movie has become a part of plots spanning across all different genres. Ranging from classic comedies such as “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983) to the dramatic “Into the Wild” (2007) to something nestled somewhere between, “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006). No matter the topic, audiences tend to enjoy these travel stories. Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” (2016) is no exception. The film captures both the beauty and filth of the American Midwest, while commenting heavily on ethics and their role within different socioeconomic groups.
The film’s simple plot follows Star (Sasha Lane) as she abandons her unfulfilling life of scrounging through garbage, for a life on the road selling magazines with a group of partying teens and young adults. She finds herself enamored with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his charismatic style. Quickly, Star realizes her original perceptions of the experience differ quite a bit from the expectations set in place by leader, Krystal (Riley Keogh).
“American Honey” is Lane’s show for as much as they promoted the film as being about LaBeouf. Make no mistake, LaBeouf delivers a noteworthy performance, but Lane captivates. The character of Star is complicated in that she has been forced into maturity well beyond her years, but appears to be trying to rewind time in an attempt to regain some of her youth. Lane captures the subtleties of each personality trait through her facial expressions. There are points where Star has to decide who she is, an adult or a reckless teenager? The worry on her face and her posture exhibit moments of conflict. She makes chemistry with LaBeouf look easy.
Arnold’s vision for the film is extraordinary. At it’s the core, “American Honey” is obsessed with the environment in which people live. There are times where it almost seems as though it is a Terrence Malik film in the way it focuses on capturing nature in all its beauty. It isn’t often that filmmakers choose to highlight the Midwest’s various landscapes, but Arnold has chosen to make areas such as the oilfields of North Dakota and the badlands of South Dakota the setting for her film. There is even a small section filmed in Nebraska and the Omaha area. What she has provided for audiences is an appreciation of the Midwest’s beauty, and the occasional dark side of life lived by many.
The soundtrack plays a role in the success of the film just as much as any character. Many of the scenes are highlighted with a sing-a-long by the caravan of magazine sellers. Even if the songs selected don’t connect with members of the film’s audience, it is apparent they connect with the characters. They use music to motivate and bond with each other. Those moments are what make the characters connect with the audience. There is a sense of the role music plays in the life of humans at some of their highest points, lowest points, and everything in between.
Under everything technical is a message about human duty. What is the purpose of human existence? Is more expected of humans than just waking up, eating, drinking, having sex, going to bed and then starting all over the following day? “American Honey” seems to tap into this idea without directly answering these questions.
There are constant visual comparisons between animals of all sorts and human characters. At times it appears they are no different from each other, but then Star gives a slightly different viewpoint. Clearly she has intentions of being more, and even carries through on these intentions from time to time. But as she gets sucked back into a society confused by its purpose, it asks the question of whether human beings are all that different from any other animal?
Although a road trip film, “American Honey” is so much more. It gives viewers a look at modern life in the Midwest from the landscape to the people who inhabit the area. The film explores human interaction and what purpose people have in the grand scheme of everything.
It is the kind of film that leaves the audience asking questions about life long after leaving the theater. And though it is an almost three-hour film, it has a lot to show and say. Regardless of background, every person should be able to take away something that connected with them, and if not, a repeated viewing may be order. The world of cinema could use more experiences such as the one presented in “American Honey.”