Andrea Arnold is a British film director, so what’s she doing outside her native UK bringing us a story of young magazine subscription agents plying their trade in such far-off places in the heartland as Muskogee, Oklahoma and Kansas City? The answer is that she came here and did her research and even discovered the film’s star, newcomer Sasha Lane, who was sunbathing on a beach while on spring break from college.
Lane plays Star, a rebellious teenager residing in the aforementioned Muskogee, who is taking care of two children when she runs into Jake (Shia LaBeouof) at a local K-Mart parking lot. He offers her a job if she comes with him and his group to Kansas. After dumping off the kids back with their trailer trash mom, Star returns to where the group’s van is parked and falls asleep until Jake finds her there in the morning, delighted that she has agreed to travel to Kansas and become part of the team selling magazine subscriptions.
Keep in mind that this group of young people are not whom you might expect: a coterie of clean-cut, Fundamentalist Christians selling wholesome magazines–but quite the contrary, a group of foul-mouthed cut-ups who revel in playing pranks on one another when not working and obnoxiously belting out hip-hop numbers reflecting their anti-establishment weltanschauung. You would think that Star would fit right in here but her surly demeanor prevents her from being a particularly good salesperson.Star soon runs afoul of the group’s leader, Krystal, an all-business supervisor who sees a potential problem with her new hire’s inability to interact effectively with customers. Krystal pairs Star up with her best salesperson, Jake, entrusting him with showing her the ropes as they go door to door. Soon, bad boy Jake’s sales performance begins to suffer due to being distracted by the sexy Star, but she’s determined to prove she can outsell him. Soon afterward she’s picked up by three middle-aged Texas “cowboys” who agree to buy a large amount of her magazines if she’s willing to swallow a worm from the bottom of a glass of Mezcal (a strong Mexican alcoholic beverage).
Wouldn’t you know it but Jake shows up–mistakenly believing that the cowboys are taking advantage of Star—and robs them at gunpoint. Star I suppose recognises that Jake is a quintessential bad boy and agrees to have sex with him, consummating their burgeoning romance. It’s around this time that Jake reveals he has a stash of jewellery that he’s stolen from various potential customers at the houses he visits, which he eventually plans to sell in order to purchase a house.
Echoing the scene with the cowboys, Star is off again on her own, but this time earning “extracurricular” cash prostituting herself to an oil worker. Jake, in a fit of jealousy, attacks the oil worker (off screen) and is eventually let go by Krystal, who informs Star that he’s been sleeping with all the girls he’s recruited for her.Despite all of the negativity, director Arnold attempts to make her protagonist more sympathetic when she shows Star buying groceries for a bunch of kids in a rundown area in Rapid City, South Dakota. Is it really enough though? Both Star and Jake are not exactly what you would call upright, law-abiding citizens. Both are guilty of armed robbery (I wonder why the police weren’t looking for both of them after the “cowboy” caper) and Jake is certainly guilty of assaulting the oil worker. An additional accomplice might be the film’s director, in that it appears her fascination with such disreputable characters as Star and Jake borders on outright sympathy and misguided approbation.
Others might argue that Arnold is merely a calculating observer of rebellious young persons who live on the edge. Certainly she’s done well extracting strong performances from her principles, Lane and LaBeouf, reminiscent of James Dean and Natalie Wood in the “iconic” teen rebellion “epic,” Rebel Without a Cause. Still, she wastes too much time (the film clocks in at around a lugubrious two and a half hours)covering her mindless magazine subscription agents as they boorishly interact inside their van heading to one city after another.
American Honey’s ending is ambiguous. Jake is suddenly back on the team and gives Star a turtle, which she releases into a lake, immersing herself in the water, during the group’s celebratory bonfire. The breed of amoral nihilists that Arnold finds so fascinating here certainly don’t deserve our commendation. The director unfortunately has more mixed feelings about her subjects, and others might just find that a tad bit troubling.