Andrea Arnold’s fourth full-length film “American Honey” announces a brand new face on screen: a spunky twenty-year-old Texan, Sasha Lane. Lane plays ‘Star,’ a lost teenager who joins a bandwagon of other teen misfits, travelling around the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions.
The teens of American Honey are products of the lower class. The film opens with Star and two much younger children scavenging for food in a dumpster—they find a packaged chicken, most likely spoiled, and return home with their findings for the day. While impatiently waiting for a hopeful Samaritan driver gracious enough to give them a ride back home, Star sees a van full of wild teens pull into the parking lot of Walmart across the street. Captivated by the loud music and their rowdy behavior, she follows them into Walmart with her two young companions, whom she seems to be taking care of for reasons unknown.
Inside Walmart, she observes Jake, played by the one and only Shia LaBeouf, as he and his fellow teens make a scene throughout the market. As Jake and Star look at one another for the first time, the instant chemistry is apparent. Commercial pop music is a key factor in American Honey; and at this moment, Rhianna’s “We Found Love,” blasts through the market in deafeningly loud volume. However obnoxious, this is a magical moment for Jake and Star—Jake jumps up onto the cashier desk and starts pumping to the music as Star watches, mesmerized by his behavior. He is, of course, thrown out by the market’s security guard. Back out in the parking lot he invites Star to join him and his “business,” which she finds out later, is going around from door to door selling magazine subscriptions.
Star seems conflicted by this offer, for she feels guilty in leaving the two kids, knowing that if she left they would be neglected with no one to feed and take care of them. By the look of their skin tones, they don’t look related—but it is assumed that she has been their primary caretaker for a time, for reasons unexplained. The place that these three call “home,” is evidently toxic: the male figure of the home is a temperamental, staggering alcoholic. He grabs Star and forces the distressed girl to dance with him, grabbing her too closely for comfort. Her mixed expression of discomfort and disgust by the man’s creepy behavior is heartbreaking to watch, especially as a female viewer. This seems to mark her moment of realization that she can no longer remain where she is.
This depiction of a broken home—with its toxic adult figure and a constant lack of nutrition, both literally and figuratively—comes to define a significant part of Star, which resurfaces again near the end of the film. After hitting several wealthy districts selling magazine subscriptions, the van of teens tries a very low-income district this time. Krystal, a devilish character played by Riley Keough, is the head manager of the business and she tells the teens, “Everyone is poor here just like you, so they’ll feel sorry and buy your magazines.” Star tries one of the many worn-down houses, only to find three small children unattended by an adult. The house is a mess with no food in sight, and the kids are simply excited to receive another company.
This is no new sight for Star, and her sense of empathy surfaces visibly on her face. It’s impossible for her to ignore the resonation between these neglected children’s’ lives and her own, or the past life she had come from. Then, she does a surprising thing that was probably the most memorable to me in the entire three hour long film: she leaves to pick up groceries for the three young strangers, something she’s been doing before hopping on to the bus of magazine-selling teens. Star’s rather surprising act of sympathy determines the complexity of her moral compass. Just the night before, she had agreed to “hangout” with a more than middle-aged man for a thousand dollars; and it is with this money that she can afford groceries for the young strangers. Sasha Lane’s character is empowering in this way: one’s virtue can never be black or white.
The film will be released in theaters on September 30, 2016 (NY/LA) / October 2016 (Nationwide).