American Honey is a sort of hazy gritty dance in a dream itself. Shot in (as much as possible) incandescent natural lighting that Sasha Lane's face practically holds like a pool of water, Honey is a whirlwind road trip movie as much about the incessant acceptance this generation's youth craves as much as it is about Star's coming of age. Star (Lane) leaves her stifling home behind to join a traveling magazine sales crew in search of some sort of escape. What she finds is bewildering and exhilarating freedom while crossing the American Midwest with other outcasts who have no one to miss them.
American Honey doesn't have a whole lot in terms of plot. Hopefully this isn't a make or break issue for you though, because Arnold's creative purpose has always been to leave room for life's mysteries in film. There is no definitive statement, nothing to take away from the movie except what you formulate from the images given. Arnold's movie is a gift in this way, doing what film should: a moving picture that allows us to make personal impressions. Her vision of the Midwest is valuable -- not because it is definitive, although it is certainly eye-opening, but because it is her clearly unenforced experience and interpretation of it.
Although certainly similar thematically to Arnold's debut Fish Tank, American Honey is gentler and allows us to more urgently experience the loneliness of teenagers. There's a yearning that's involved even in how they sell their magazines -- an understanding that they're not just selling product, but they're selling themselves and some form of acceptance. The film is a maelstrom of drugs, young love, impromptu songs, but it's contemporary and so very current with its ebb and flow -- of the need for these children to release emotion even if through a scheduled fight club whose members consist of the week's lowest sellers.
Arnold shoots in a 4:3 ratio, which looks almost boxy in the theatre. Scenes fill up the screen with no room for anything else in existence at times, while others allow for personal observance. It works obviously for the claustrophobic scenes within the van, where we spend the most time of the movie and somehow does wonders even for the landscape of the great Midwest. It, of course, emphasizes the single shots she loves to use and for good reason. The ratio accentuates the narrative of the story through Star's viewpoint. Sasha Lane's face catches the light so well, it's beyond ridiculous. A complete unknown with no acting experience when cast, Lane's face is just plain watchable. Robbie Ryan is the cinematographer, transforming landscapes and homes with color --whether they're somber grey or taut darks or light-washed radiance.
The rest of the cast, inexperienced actors and experienced (such as a fantastic Shia LeBeouf and Riley Keough), also buoy the film. LeBeouf is smarmy, heavy-lidded, yet sympathetic and lost simultaneously: flawed even as he shows swagger. Keough plays a tough unanchored anchor to the whole enterprise, keen-eyed yet more menacing to Star than to the audience who can more easily see through her.
American Honey is not a movie in the sense of a conventional story. We are, however, left with a sense of wild abandon and growth within Star's character. Although the film is nearly three hours long and may feel like a whole lot of time with little development, we have to allow for the characters to be themselves -- whether they choose to grow or not. Star's limitations as a character are because she is both willfully and inevitably unheeding and because she is simultaneously searching for escape and a welcome, for an individual voice even as she aligns her dreams with another's. Like Star, Arnold has a fierce, unique voice that deserves to be heard. All of Arnold's films have won the Cannes Jury Prize, but this is easily her best: coherent and elusive all at once.