UK/US, 2016, 163 minutes, Colour.
Sasha Lane, Shia La Boeuf.
Directed by Andrea Arnold.
Star is a young girl, 18, with a partner, looking after her brother and sister for her mother who doesn’t seem interested, trying to survive – and we see her with the kids on the road, trying to get a lift, cars passing by, her going to the supermarket, seeing a van load of young people boisterously coming in, allowing the children to have a drink in the supermarket, fascinated by one of the young men who dances on the checkout counter, following him out where he offers her a job in door-to-door sales. That’s the beginning.
As to the title, Crystal, who is in charge of the group, asks Star whether she is an American Honey, sweet and attractive? This is also the title of the song which contributes to the finale of the film, the group of young people, including Star, singing the song as they drive into the future.
This is a road movie. This is a piece of Americana. What makes it more interesting is that it has been written and directed by Andrea Arnold from Britain (Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights).
The way that Andrea Arnold looks at Americans and the United States along the roads of the midwest and into Texas is by using a handheld camera (somewhat irritating for those who prefer classic modes and not the jerking, “realistic” style of photography) as well as the old-style box framing on the screen. This has touches of the home movie, the capturing of life as it is in a documentary style while creating a fiction.
Sasha Lane is persuasive as Star. It is principally Star that we are watching, whom we are invited to identify with – which may be easier for a younger audience but may at times try the patience of an older audience. What she has got herself into is something of a commune group on the road, travelling in a van, a great deal of camaraderie. If we are feeling a touch censorious, we might be tempted to think that these are idle young people, judging them by their look, their clothes, their freewheeling attitudes.
But, on the contrary, they are participating in the American capitalist dream. They do actually do door-to-door sales and our highly organised by Crystal. She controls the timetables, the plans, knows the various districts they are working in, has receipts for magazine subscriptions all printed out – and, at the end of each day, she collects the money, giving the young people not such a high percentage and keeping the rest for paying for food and accommodation and travel.
So, this is a rather sympathetic picture of contemporary young people, seemingly aimless at times, yet with some purpose, but no great long term planning. Star is surprised at one stage when she is asked what her dreams are, never having been asked that before. She is not the dreamy type, initially reacting rather negatively to the spiels that are created to entice people to subscribe to the magazines, bluntly criticising. However, she moves into the vein of the work, some strange experiences, especially with a group of good old boys who take her to a ranch where she shows off, drinking too much, their all finishing up in the pool, but in fact they all take out subscriptions.
There are at truck stops, quite some encounters with a variety of truck drivers, some friendly, some overtly sexual. They are trained to be shrewd in assessing people’s characters, the context, matching their stories for sympathy and sales.
While Star becomes emotionally entangled with Crystal’s man, Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), her kindliness is also drawn out, especially when she encounters some kids in a “trailer-trash” situation, listening to them seem, buying them groceries.
Many critics have found this film quite powerful. It won the Ecumenical award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016. On the other hand, it is very long, almost 3 hours and, if the characters and their situations do not draw the audience in, it could be something of an endurance.
1. The title, Crystal and Star and the discussion? American woman? Sweet and attractive? The song in its lyrics, the group singing at the end?
2. The director, her British background, a perspective on the United States, comparisons of young people in different countries?
3. Road movie, the towns, the highways, the countryside, ordinary and flat, crops, digging for oil, the canyons? The affluent cities, the trailer locations? The cross-section of America?
4. The director and his style, the classic box frame, the handheld camera, close-ups and intimacy, a documentary style, yet creating the fiction? The effect? The very long running time?
5. Songs, the range, popular, group singing, dancing, the use for motivations, creating a common spirit? The lyrics and their meaning?
6. The focus on Star, audiences identifying with her on not? First impression, her age, with the children, something for the lift, the cars passing by? Going to the supermarket? Jake and the van and the crowd? Inside, flirting? His attraction, the dense on the counter? Following him out, his invitation, her taking the kids home? At home, the house, her preparing the meal, her partner being amorous? The decision to leave, out through the window, taking the children? Going to the dance hall, her mother and the line dancing, her father? The reaction of her mother? Leaving the children, running away? The group, the impression on the audience, their ages, male and female, there look, clothes, family backgrounds, the puzzle about why they were on the road at this age, the use of drugs, sexual relationships, an atmosphere of freedom? Their interactions, some loud, some quiet, the man exposing himself? Their spirit?
7. Audience response to the purpose of there being together? American capitalism? Crystal, her character, age, control, her brains of the plans, well prepared, documents?
8. Jake, his recruiting Star, meeting Crystal, Crystal’s decision, her being partnered with Jake, the manual, the rules, learning them? The emphasis on money, her hopes?
9. The going out, the affluent house, the variety of plans, the Speigel’s, performance, the variety of scenarios to appeal to people, the techniques of talking to people in the context, homes? Collecting the money? The subscriptions for the magazines? The receipts? Crystal collecting the money, they’re handing it in, the details of the percentage they would receive?
10. The first home, affluent, the young girl had her birthday, her mother, inviting them in, the welcome, Jake and his story, his studies, the woman laughing, Start upset, taunting the woman, swearing, being ousted? Taunting the woman about her daughter and the devil?
11. The range of people and the range of homes, the encounters, the beginning of the stories, the different scenarios that Jake would spin? Not necessarily seen whether they were successful or not? But the handing in of the money?
12. Going to the truck stops, the drivers, the discussions, personal, the friendly drivers? The overtly sexual drivers? The effect on Star?
13. Star being picked up by the men, the good old boys, the barbecue, the drink, Started drinking too much, in the pool, pulling the many in? The subscriptions, getting the money? The wolf sounds and Jake arriving? The escape in the car? The effect on the two of them, the sexual encounters? The further sexual encounters, explicit? With the background of Jake and his relationship with Crystal? The moods of each?
14. The other characters, they’re introducing themselves, but not always making an impact with the audience? The long time spent in driving, in the audience looking at the characters, getting to know them better?
15. The stop at the Canyon and their amazement? The oil fields? Going to the trailer park, they’re looking at the variety of houses as they passed, poor, the kids playing? Getting out, Star going to the house, the children, the little girl and her singing the song about killing children, precocious and friendly, the boy? The mother and her drugs, passed out? Seeing Star in the supermarket, her buying the groceries, going to the door and leaving them for the children?
16. Crystal and her clash with Star, talk about Jake, her taunting Star, Jake of the recruits, payment? His going off on the motorbike? The effect on Start?
17. Crystal, wondering whether she would get rid of Start?
18. The singing on the bus, Jake returning, this Start looking, quiet? The group spirit, American Honey? The future?
19. A portrait of young people, their having some vitality, sense of freedom, but caught up in survival, poverty – the film as reflection on young people, present and future?