British director Andrea Arnold’s first film set in America plays like a poem to the road movie. Using a vérité style she captures in close-up what it means to be young and ‘free’. Star (Sasha Lane) is the heart of the story, escaping her family, a home in the barest sense, where she and her younger siblings are left to fend for themselves at the dumpster, their parents lost to drugs and alcohol, and a ‘father’ of sorts who sexually abuses her.
Jake (Shia Le Beouf) is the Pied Piper, collecting unwanted kids who pitch up from Florida to Texas, New Jersey to Tennessee, pulling them in with his charismatic gaze. Taking over the supermarket with their rowdy antics, Jake spots a lost child in Star, and talks up their life on the road, as they head towards Kansas City. Captivated by Jake, Star abandons her siblings with their drunk, protesting mother and makes a run for it.
Swapping one family for another, Krystal is the wicked step sister and the group’s tough leader who demands 80% of their earnings from selling magazine subscriptions, in exchange for travel, motels, junk food, and the alcohol and drugs that fuel them as they hustle door to door. “You got anybody who's going to miss you?” is the only question required to sign up.
Star is lovestruck, but Jake is ‘Krystal’s bitch’. Angry and rebellious, Star refuses to play the game as Jake coaches her in his sales routine. “I hope he comes all over your car!”, Star yells at a driver displaying the words ‘God is Coming’. Arnold evokes the urgent passion of youth, the dangers Star faces on a dizzying journey, as they plough and pilfer their way through the west, play-fighting, boozing and partying, delirious and euphoric. I like to make money so I spend it how I like, they sing to the rallying cry of rappers Carnage and Rae Sremmurd. It’s a culture where white middle class teens gyrate to the same explicit sound track, and small kids sing the Dead Kennedys', Have you heard I kill children.
It’s a film of contrasts, careening from breathtaking beauty to brutal realism, just as the music jumps from hard rap to country ballads, the ‘American Honey’ of the title. A world with no safety net, the kids dropped in the middle of nowhere till pick up, when Krystal sets the lowest earners to fight it out. Yet Star seems untouched and innocent, escaping the dangers of truck drivers, cowboys, oilrig workers, and wild bears as she follows the yellow brick road to Kansas. Escaping her harsh story she remains enslaved, taking refuge in the present moment. “What’s your dream”, a truck driver asks Star, a question neither she nor Jake have ever been asked.