2016 BFI London Film Festival Review: ‘American Honey’

October 17, 2016 Updated: October 17, 2016

We’re introduced to our dreamscape-wandering Star as she dumpster dives with her siblings for out-of-date food, which we learn is to sate her step father, who’ll soon be forcing her into an uncomfortable embrace that is the prelude to inevitable abuse. Star survives below the American poverty line, doing all she can for the wellbeing of her brother and sister, whilst her junkie mom line-dances the crack out of her system in some redneck bar.

This is the world of Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” at the centre of which you’ll find Sasha Lane in a truly phenomenal performance, one that deserves a much better movie than the naval-gazing ADHD antics surrounding her.

The premise is relatively slight. As the enigmatic, Rihanna miming, ponytail sporting Jake (Shia LaBeouf) passes through in his camper van of hyperactive douchebags, he offers Star a way out, a life on the road selling magazines for the group’s entrepreneurial business manager, Krystal (Riley Keough). Along for the ride are a kid who likes to get his penis out at every opportunity, another who has a flying fox living in his hair, and any number of interchangeable, personality voids for whom character establishment is not important.

That’s about it for nigh on three hours, as the fun bus drifts from hip hop sing-along, to improvised set-piece, with the odd close-up of an insect thrown in. It’s like what Spring Breakers would be if directed by Terence Malick, or for want of a better comparison, like getting on a night bus at 1am with a group of insufferable drunks, knowing that your stop is hours away.

These are people that you really don’t want to spend time with; as one pretentiously discusses how Darth Vader is “the epitome of darkness and misunderstanding”, your eyes rolling further into the back of a head already throbbing from an over-reliance on soundtrack.

But at the heart of this maelstrom, and heart is the right word to use, because she beats life into every frame, is Sasha Lane, who dominates the 4:3 aspect ratio with a truly stunning turn. Bold and confident from the get-go, her insecurities are subtly revealed throughout, with the young actress giving her such a natural, endearing personality that’s she’s the only real reason to endure the rest of the film.

Whenever the narrative strays from her being the focus the impact is diminished, so it’s no surprise that the standout sequences are when Lane is teamed with a resurgent Shia LaBeouf. Their door-to-door sales exploits are particularly good fun, especially one in which Star uses her affable charm on a group of Stetson wearing moneymen, or when the two of them visit a God-fearing household in which the family’s youngest daughter isn’t behaving very Christian. If Arnold’s film does one thing, it’s to show the top to bottom, white trash to white Chevy disparity of modern life in America.

Arnold’s lens filters some beautiful imagery as their journey takes in breathtaking middle American vistas, as well as some striking imagery, such as the positioning of a pair of Ruby slippers in the opening scenes before Star realises there really is no place like home and jumps on the bus.

Rambling in a way that has the potential to lose an audience from the off, “American Honey’s” artistic merits are clear, but as for what it’s trying to say, and to whom, after about the fifth shouty repetitive ride along musical interlude, you couldn’t care less.