Newcomer Sasha Lane Stuns In Intoxicating "American Honey"

We found love in a hopeless place…

Whatever was on the brain of pop luminary Rihanna as she laid down the hook on Billboard number one “We Found Love,” the singer probably wasn’t thinking of a place as hopeless as a Big K-Mart checkout lane. This is where writer-director Andrea Arnold’s red, white, and blue epic “American Honey” takes wing, naturally accompanied by the aforementioned dance track. An impoverished 18-year-old named Star (Sasha Lane) thrills to the sight of a rat-tailed stranger shimmying to the song’s wall of synthesizers. His name is Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Flanked by seven fellow troublemakers, the king holds his court, jumping atop a checkout counter in time to Rihanna’s purposeful yowl. Someone calls security.

Jake is traveling across the Great Plains, hawking magazines with a van full of misfits. Theirs is a weird, wild life – one that Star will soon get in on – but that’s not the core of “American Honey.” The movie’s exposed, quivering heart is the immediate, crackling connection forged between Star and Jake, two nomads in search of something, anything to call home – a person, place, thing, or even an idea. He offers her a job.

“We explore America, party, a whole bunch of shit, it’s cool,” Jake deadpans. Star, having just dumpster dived for a discarded frozen chicken, is more than happy to take Jake up on his offer. As the temporary ward of two young children, she has no choice but to inelegantly pawn them off onto their mother. Then she’s gone, she’s free, off to see America with a gang of roving, dreaming teens.

Jake’s unfailing gaudiness signals a leader if there ever was one. Who but a man with a sparkly phone case, suspenders, and a greasy pinstripe suit could command such reverence? But it turns out that the team’s real boss is a prickly twenty-something named Krystal (Riley Keough, granddaughter of the King himself, Elvis Presley). Jake most often follows her around with his tail between his legs, rubbing down her Confederate flag bikini-clad body with lotion on command. Krystal is the first and biggest wrench of many in Star’s plans, a looming figure between her and Jake and whatever future the two new lovebirds might have together.

The rest of the crew is less defined, falling between sort of troubled and deeply troubled. But they’re more than just the kind of wild child burnouts Ke$ha sang about before she dropped the dollar sign from her name. From the top down – from the girl with the pixie haircut and hilarious Darth Vader obsession to the dude best known for regularly exposing his genitals – they’re human beings: beautiful and ugly, simple and labyrinthine. And Andrea Arnold has crafted a film in their image.

Crucially, the filmmaker doesn’t look down on any of them, genuinely curious about them to the last. The picture is scripted but heavily improvised, allowing the cast of mostly non-actors to find serendipity in small, sometimes microscopic moments. The key to this is a soundtrack that blends hip-hop, trap, country, and indie. The songs turn the movie into a pseudo-musical, the cast frequently just standing around singing and dancing. Each song brings out the color in Jake and his crew (further blurring the line between the characters and the performers inhabiting them) and in their surroundings: parking lots, motel rooms, and suburban sidewalks.

Just how memorable is the soundtrack? For God’s sake, the movie finds emotional catharsis in a Lady Antebellum song.

None of this would be as effective as it is without newcomer Lane’s spectacular lead performance. Her magnetic, empathetic turn as Star is sure to be a life-changer not just for her, but many lost souls who go on to discover the film. LaBeouf is terrific, too, channeling his experience as one-time Hollywood pariah into something deep and meaningful. But Lane’s believability and poise in the face of some difficult thematic material (and some intense sex scenes) is a cut above the rest, belying the idea that only professional actors can carry feature length films – let alone 165-minute epics.

The very idea of a 165-minute road movie starring an unknown sounds absurd on paper, but what Andrea Arnold has assembled here defies both time and logic. Unusually shot in silent film and longtime standard television aspect ratio 4:3, “American Honey” is one of 2016’s very best films, thick and intoxicating, whooshing and thumping like a subwoofer for the entirety of its lengthy running time. It has some very important things to say about modern day America’s cultural divide, but more importantly it’s a documentation of said struggle, a superior portrait of a time and place and group of people that many filmmakers would be too afraid – or too uninterested in – to capture. Arnold has weaponized them, turning them into something powerful, something elemental. Especially Star.

In under three hours, she becomes one of the decade’s most iconic film protagonists, a name and a face that will undoubtedly grow in recognition in the years to come. Character and actress both.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: September 30, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Andrea Arnold
Screenwriter: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse-all involving teens)