"It's never too late to respond to the soul's adventure."
— Carol S. Pearson
Director Andrea Arnold won the Prix du Jury at the 2006 Cannes Festival for her debut picture Red Road. Whereas that film dealt with a wide range of issues including privacy in an age of technology, sexual power, and urban loneliness, her second picture, Fish Tank, was more focused on the coming-of-age misadventures of a rebellious and confused teenage girl. She is not a very likeable character yet Arnold managed to stay with her on her journey to find a place where she can thrive and to bloom.
American Honey, which runs nearly three hours, is her most ambitious film to date. It also won the Prix du Jury at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Best British Independent Film at those awards.
It gives us a portrait of the seeker in all of us that yearns to hit the open road, to shed adult responsibilities and the tedium of our everyday lives. It also speaks to the lover within who secretly wants to surrender to love but always seems to settle for sex instead. And that leads to both trouble and disappointment.
In the opening scenes of this sprawling film, we meet Star (Sasha Lane), a spunky 18 year old whose irresponsible parents have saddled her with looking after her two younger siblings. With little to eat and a lack of money, Star is forced to search for food in dumpsters. A telling moment passes when a car zips by her while she is trying to hitch a ride. "God is coming," says the bumper sticker, and she asks, "Are we invisible?" Yes, millions of Americans like these vulnerable and scrappy Americans are invisible to the rich and the powerful.
Star is offered access to that world after meeting and being mesmerized by Jake (Shia La Beouf), a hustler who is a fireball of energy and grandiosity. She watches him as he unfurls a sexy dance for her in a Walmart in Oklahoma City. He begs her to join him and a van full of youth who sell magazine subscriptions door to door. They visit wealthy and working class communities across the Great Plains.
Star decides to shuck her meaningless life as a caregiver in exchange for a vagabond life on the road with Jake and his band of loners and losers, misfits, and drug addicts. It doesn't take long for Star to learn that the real leader of the pack is Krystal (Riley Keough) who monitors the work of her young sales team. She is a power hungry and nasty lady who controls Jake and makes good use of him as her top earner, trainer and man-slave.
Jake teaches Star the con of sales work, but she rejects the way he lies and makes it a habit of stealing things from the houses of those who open their doors to him. His trickery is a turn-off. We realize that Jake's brashness stems from the wounds of his anxiety and loneliness. Some ferocious sex draws them back together for a brief passing moment. But having sold no subscriptions, Star has painted herself into a corner with only one escape. You have to see it to believe it.
American Honey is a road movie that rambles here and there until director Andrea Arnold feels that just the right time has drawn near. Throughout this compelling drama, we identify with these two souls who suffer from wounded feeling function; not knowing how to find meaning and happiness in life, they are propelled into wild and unplanned experiences.
The film's closing scene is a magical moment: Star, who has been afraid of water and unable to swim, dips herself in a self-controlled baptism and comes up out of the water refreshed and renewed. We know she is ready to face a new world with the hard indelible lessons she has learned on her long but fruitful spiritual journey.