Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature film is her first set in the United States, and how appropriate for her to try her hand at that staple of American cinema – the road movie. 'American Honey' sees teenager Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) joining a ‘mag crew’ – a team of down-on-their-luck youngsters who are employed to travel from suburb to suburb, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Star struggles to get to grips with salesmanship – much to the chagrin of her boss, Crystal (Riley Keough) – and tries to win the affections of Crystal’s top salesman, Jake (Shia LaBeouf).

For its first hour or so, 'American Honey' made me feel quite a lot of anxiety. I don’t think that’s the response Arnold intended, but this group of kids roped into hawking magazines for a faceless company (represented by Crystal, who you feel is only a few months off of the mag crews herself) reminded me all too much of a brief spell I had making cold calls for a double-glazing company. Everyone employed to do this job was aged between sixteen and twenty, doing it because you needed no qualifications or experience and if you sold well you were promised juicy commissions. I was also encouraged to lie if necessary, and people who didn’t sell enough were singled out by the managers (real-life Crystals) and shamed in front of the other employees.

I hated it, and left after receiving my first month’s pay. I could do that, because the job was located in an office in my hometown. As I watched Star take off across the country with a group of strangers, dependent on the job to stay on the road, I remembered how exploitative that cold-calling job had been – exploitative of the young people wanting to make some money, and exploitative of their customers by encouraging their young staff to lie to them. Mag crews like the one in 'American Honey' are even worse, picking up kids as they travel from town to town and dumping them just as quickly if they don’t make enough money.

But the mag crews offer an escape and freedom from responsibility. The kids are put up in hotels, ferried around the country and fed for as long as they keep selling magazines. They opt for a limbo between childhood and adulthood, working but not growing up. It’s hard to grow up these days; it’s far easier to throw your savings into travelling than to struggle to get a foot on the property ladder or find regular, fulfilling employment. Arnold’s minibus full of drifters reflects the millennial experience you don’t get to hear about – not the ‘boomerang generation’ fortunate enough to have parents who will support them through hard times, but the kids who are under-valued and overlooked to the point that they settle into their roles as outsiders.

But for all the desperation on display in 'American Honey', there is also a sense that these kids really have found a kind of freedom on the road, and there is a vein of hope running through the film’s near-three hour running time. This is strongly reflected in the film’s soundtrack. For the most part, the music we hear is that picked by the mag crew as they head down the highway or huddle outside cheap motels. The soundtrack is heavy with hip-hop tracks reflecting the group’s aspirations – money, success, fame. E-40’s ‘Choices (Yup)’ is basically the group’s theme; they rap along with it before a day out at work: “You a sap? Nope!/You a boss player, you a mack? Yup!” and “But I never go broke (no, no, no)/I'mma stay gettin' money (yeah, yeah, yeah)/And I ain't gotta sell my soul (no, no, no)/I'mma stay gettin' money (yeah, yeah, yeah)”.

The soundtrack reflects a fantasy of self-reliance and defiance of the system that’s found them practically living on a bus. The idea that you can come from nothing and find money, love or happiness rings through a number of the songs – Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’. There are also tracks that are just pure escapism – Carnage and Migos’ ‘Bricks’ is basically just about getting messed up.

The film shares its name with a song by Lady Antebellum, a syrupy country track about a girl who grew up sweet but feels the weight of time and responsibility, longing to go back to the carefree days of her youth. Played brilliantly by Sasha Lane, Star’s upbringing is hard and she is tough, but also empathetic and good-hearted – she fails at the sales gig because she doesn’t believe in lying to people (the other sellers give sob stories or claim to be raising funds for an education programme). Arnold has always had a thing for beautiful shots of life beneath the surface – insects and small creatures – and this film is no different. Star is seen rescuing bees, bugs and other animals throughout the film, while her compatriots get drunk or stoned (not that she doesn’t do that too).

'American Honey' is sparse in its plot, but the journey is captivating, moving, funny and wonderful to look at. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan captures every shot like a work of art, making even the most downtrodden parts of America look beautiful. Arnold chose to frame her film in Academy standard (1.37:1), so it sits in the middle of modern cinema screens, but the landscapes and characters seem to punch their way out of the sides.

There were a couple of scenes – particularly featuring Jake – where I felt the story took a leave of reality for a little while, and one could also criticise some of Arnold’s choices for being a little on the nose – we probably don’t need to see Star rescuing quite so many animals to realise that she has a good heart. The soundtrack can feel a little say-what-you-see at times too, but then there’s nothing subtle about these kids (if the boys want to get the attention of the girls, they will just pull their dicks out) so it makes sense that their musical choices would be just as direct.

Despite my anxiety in the beginning, my overwhelming feeling at the end of 'American Honey' was very positive. Ultimately it is an uplifting story; Star is never beaten down, never anything less than fearless. You travel with her on the road and worry for her as she makes one rash decision after another, but her youthful exuberance, her strength and self-assuredness make her seem kind of invincible by the end.

At one point Star is asked about her hopes for the future, and she admits she’s never been asked about it before. But with the seed planted, she begins to dream of something better – and you can’t help but feel she’s going to make it there. As the credits roll to Razzy Bailey’s ‘I Hate Hate (But I Love Love)’, things suddenly don’t seem quite so bleak after all.







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