From the opening scene, until the closing credits, “American Honey” follows the character of ‘Star,’ portrayed in her film debut by Sasha Lane. She is someone who, the viewer will come to learn, is a mixture of naivety and self-assuredness; a young girl who often speaks her mind, and is not afraid to take dangerous risks. When first seen, she is digging through a dumpster for food, aided by her two younger siblings, before they attempt to hitchhike back to their house. A white van, which is filled with teenagers and people in their early twenties, attracts Star’s curiosity as it passes her by. She decides to follow the passengers of the van into a store, and that is where she first meets the confident, engaging, and occasionally hot tempered, Jake, played by BAFTA winner, Shia LaBeouf (Fury). Jake sports a braided rat tail, piercings, and a multitude of tattoos. After a brief conversation, Jake offers Star the opportunity to join his group of young revelers, but she doesn’t accept. He lets her know what motel he is staying at for the evening, in case she changes her mind.
When Star arrives home with her siblings, after her step-father orders her to make dinner, and attempts to engage her in extremely, inappropriate behavior, she decides to make her move. Packing up her younger brother and sister, she locates her seemingly absentee mother, while the woman is country-line dancing. After a short conversation, where Star lets her mother know that she’s taking off for a job in Kansas City, and that the kids can’t stay with their step-father, she excuses herself to go to the restroom, and runs away. The next morning, Star is shown sleeping in the parking lot of the motel, next to the white van. She is awakened by the sound of its passengers, as they arrive to embark on the next stop of their cross country, money making business.
What Jake and his fellow travelers do is sell magazine subscriptions door to door. The business is a legitimate one; the customers will receive the magazines they subscribe to. The means by which Jake and the sales team go about soliciting customers to buy their product, however, is not on the up and up. If Jake encounters someone who is wealthy, he pretends he is trying to earn money for a college scholarship. If he comes across someone, who he deems is religious, his pitch changes to that of a man who is attempting to raise money for a church project. Whatever he, and the members of the sales team need to say, will be said, in an effort to sell as many magazines as possible. The tight-knit team, while not much is given on their individual back stories, is comprised of impoverished young people from various parts of America, who wanted to escape where they came from. While riding in the van, and during their off hours, they spend their time drinking, smoking weed, and singing along to music.
Jake is the top earner, but the day to day operations of the business are run by Krystal, a role acted by Golden Globe nominee, Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience). In addition to setting the daily assignments, sending out the members of her team in pairs, in the different neighborhoods that the group targets, she sets the rules. Krystal insists that the guys and girls on her sales team sleep in separate motel rooms, and frowns on romance between members of the team because she feels it is bad for business. Those who break her rules, or who she perceives are trying to get one over on her, are threatened with being left behind with nothing. In addition to earning commission, there is an added incentive to not finishing as one of the bottom two people on her sales team. Those who do, have to physically fight it out for Krystal’s entertainment at the end of each week.
Star is paired with Jake. She at first objects to his methods; she doesn’t like the fact that he is lying to customers in order to get sales. As time passes, however, and the more she feels that Krystal might abandon her for lack of sales, she begins to take greater risks to her own safety, in order to sell. For example, she takes off in the open top convertible of three men, who are all wearing blue jeans, white button down shirts, and white cowboy hats, and proceeds to go to one of the men’s houses, where liquor is being poured liberally, and the men state they are willing to offer her four hundred dollars for magazines if she keeps drinking with them. Furthermore, on several occasions, even though it is a clear cut violation of Krystal’s rules, Star and Jake give in to their lust for one another; while no proclamations of love are spoken between the two characters, as time passes, the relationship transcends to more of care and concern, even though Jake has to remain guarded for his own self preservation.
Will Star tire of the nomadic life and leave the sales team to pursue some individual dreams she has for herself? Do Jake and Star leave together and start a new life? What about the other members of the sales team? How long can they keep traveling America’s highways selling magazines door to door? What will happen to them when the business disbands? Those expecting a clear cut resolution will be disappointed because the film, in essence, lets the viewer project what they believe the future will hold for all involved.
“American Honey” premiered in France on May 15, 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival. The drama was written and directed by Oscar winner, Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank). While I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, I did find one fault with the film, for its subject matter, its runtime, which is approximately 163 minutes, was just too lengthy. Leaving that aside, “American Honey” is a compelling and poignant portrait of disenfranchised youth.