by Karen Han
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is the latest offering in a film genre that is, for the most part, uniquely American: the road movie. With Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider among its number, it’s a genre that leaves big shoes to fill. American Honey more than does the job, but unlike its predecessors, it doesn’t seek to structure a story around the trip. The trip is the story.
The movie starts off by the book: Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) is a girl robbed of the chance to be young, caring for her two younger siblings as her stepfather makes advances at her and her mother spends her time at the local roadhouse. When she’s offered the chance to join a mag crew, she takes it. It’s more than just a job; it’s an opportunity for her to be free. And free is exactly what the movie is — sometimes more, but never less.
Latching onto Star’s coattails, we go wheeling through parts of America that are generally referred to as “flyover states.” They’re taken for granted, much like the teenagers in the magazine crew we’re following, who come from a socioeconomic bracket that’s almost never seen onscreen in a way that hasn’t somehow been dulled down or romanticized. Through their eyes, however, the endless prairie and stretches of grey highway (and, briefly, even Kansas City) become beautiful. It’s only when the outside world encroaches on the bubble of existence that these kids have built that the vibrant colors start to drain from the picture.
Still, no matter who they encounter along the way, the crew keeps moving, and as such, so does the audience. This isn’t a journey from Point A to Point B; Star doesn’t leave home with that kind of an end goal in mind, and while the stakes are relatively low — there’s no bounty, as in Badlands (though it’s almost as easy to imagine running away with Shia LaBeouf, who is magnetic in this film, as it is with Martin Sheen), and no beauty contest to get to, as per the more recent Little Miss Sunshine — they still carry the same weight. It’s a testament to Arnold’s skill, not to mention that of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, that the movie holds together despite a narrative structure that is loose at best.
As such, American Honey is a unique entry into the genre, possessed of the same kind of yearning that saturated My Own Private Idaho and, to a certain extent, performing a similar feat in unspooling a vision of a world that we might not see, otherwise. (While the joy of the characters is infectious, there’s still no mistaking the fact that the world that they inhabit is rough. It’s even more evident given that our protagonist is female — yet another rarity that American Honey has going in its favor.) It is also unique as a bildungsroman in that Star’s revelations aren’t explicitly stated or overtly grand. There’s no fall from grace, no battle with hubris; her journey is through adolescence and young love, and, more significantly, it doesn’t end with us.