“American” is such a loaded word in contemporary society. It used to signify a collective consciousness, but now it seems the word’s meaning has shifted to something more individualistic. I still embrace the definition from Cornel West as “a romantic project” that is “fueled with a religion of vast possibility.”
Sounds dreamy, right? Andrea Arnold, the writer-director of American Honey, presents a film in which very little is directly said about the idea of “America.” Instead, it works as a reflection of the dreaming going on in the psyche of Star (Sasha Lane), the film’s teen protagonist.
She hooks up with a roving band of rebellious kids posing as a traveling magazine sales team. They are this generation’s definition of what it means to be both “American” and “dreamers”; they just don’t talk about it in that way. They speak in defiant words and actions, boldly proclaiming nothing more than a desire to “be.”
Of course, what attracts Star to this lifestyle initially is far more basic — she’s drawn to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the unkempt leader of this ragtag group. She follows them into a superstore, her two young siblings in tow, riveted by the ease and charisma of Jake’s free and playful spirit. He dances to the music piping out of the store’s speakers, hops up on the conveyor belt at the checkout counter and lustily makes eyes at her, daring her to approach him. And when she does, he pitches her on the idea that she should become a part of this group.
Star packs her few belongings and hitches her wagon with Jake and the crew, soon discovering that everyone works for Krystal (Riley Keough), the older sister/mother hen of the band. The journey of American Honey is as rootless and anti-plot-driven as its characters. But, along the way, someone asks Star about her dreams and what she imagines her future will look like.
It is fascinating to see how confused she is by the very idea that someone would even ask such a thing. We imagine that when she started on this crazy adventure, it was all a dream to her that gradually faded. Arnold uses Star to remind us of our own dreams, and to recall the sweetness of the fragile American experiment that binds us together. (Opens Oct. 14 at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: A