After more than 20 years of writing about movies, I've accumulated a near-infinite list of advice that I would give to filmmakers—from actors they need to cast far more often, to scenes that I would be happy to never ever see again (I'm looking at you, "post-traumatic shame shower"). But one that seems so obvious to me continues to be a danger: You need to think long and hard before you start your film title with "American."
Clearly many such films have been popular and generally lauded over the years, from American Graffiti to American Beauty to American Sniper. It's a risky proposition, however, because there's a built-in assumption that you're going to unfold a narrative that is in some way about The Way Things Are Today. Where you could (and probably should) simply be telling a story, throwing "American" at the front makes it feel like you're trying to tell the story—the definitive statement. And that's a burden that even a good movie doesn't need.
American Honey takes its title from a Lady Antebellum song—more about which later—and it's fairly evident that it's meant to describe Star (Sasha Lane), writer/director Andrea Arnold's 18-year-old protagonist. Scraping together a desperate life in Muskogee, Okla.—dumpster-diving for food while living with her creepy father—she's a fierce spirit staring down a life that looks as dead-end as the one that cost her meth-addict mother her life. So it's easy to understand the appeal when she spots a wild young traveling "mag crew" of youths selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions, and is invited by their top salesman, Jake (Shia LaBeouf) to join them.
And join them she does, loading herself into a van filled with fellow drifters, runaways and other assorted misfits, like the Darth Vader-obsessed Pagan (Heaven Knows What's Arielle Holmes). Arnold does a fine job of capturing the makeshift-family vibe of these kids, packed together and getting high on their road trip across the Great Plains in a way that feels even more constricted by Arnold's use of the TV-square 4:3 ratio. American Honey is at its loosest and most satisfying when simply observing the crew's day-to-day world, from motel rooms full to bursting, to their expertly tailored door-to-door—and sometimes truck door-to-truck door—sales.
It's also a phenomenal Star showcase for first-time actor Lane. This story plays as something of a spiritual companion piece to Arnold's terrific 2009 drama Fish Tank, which also followed a tough teen girl trying to imagine a better future for herself. The director understands how to navigate the character space between toughness and vulnerability, observing Lane's watchful performance as she tries to interpret Jake's feelings for her, or his relationship with the crew's alpha-female boss, Krystal (Riley Keough). It's only thanks to the defiant edge in her performance that scenes which could have come off as exploitative—like a house party with three cowboys that seems doomed to a bad end—instead crackle with Star's determination to become a winner.
It all might have added up to a transcendent piece of cinematic realism, if Arnold had demonstrated just a bit more trust in her audience. Not content with one scene in which Star's gentle treatment of an animal conveys the soft center in her soul, American Honey offers up at least two or three such scenes; when Jake and Star attempt a sale in one upper-class home, it becomes a set piece about an uptight Christian mother and her young daughter's inappropriately sexy dance moves. The movie never feels ponderous at more than two-and-a-half hours, but its epic length—visiting of-the-moment locations like North Dakota oil shale fields—still feels like part of a plan to give it an epic sense of consequence.
Late in the film, Star and her friends share one of several sing-alongs that liven up their long drives through flat landscapes: Lady Antebellum's "American Honey." They sing lyrics about getting caught in the race of this crazy life, and remembering a simpler, innocent childhood time—a time which, for these kids, almost certainly never existed. Andrea Arnold does a fine enough job in American Honey of telling a story about that missing childhood innocence, without having to tell us that she's been telling us. It can be about these people, in this place, and not have to be about America.