Road movies and their literary counterparts occupy a special place in the popular imagination. Like Westerns, road movies use wide-open spaces and free mobility to express a uniquely American belief in unlimited possibilities and personal reinvention. In the 1950s and '60s, road movies and books became closely associated with the explosion of youth culture. It would be hard to understand those times without considering Jack Kerouac's On the Road or Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider, works that came to symbolize entire generations of young people.
It will be for millennials to decide whether 55-year-old British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's ambitious American Honey captures something distinctive and true of their life experience. But it's safe to say Arnold's utterly original road movie speaks to the fractured, election-weary America of 2016 like few films this year.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, American Honey follows the fictional adventures of a real-life modern phenomenon known as the "mag crew." Fifteen young people (roughly ages 18 to 22) crisscross the Midwest in a large van, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door by day under the iron hand of boss Krystal (Riley Keough) and partying hard at cheap motels by night. Coming mostly from broken homes in poor, rural areas, they live on the margins of a society no longer interested in preventing them from falling through the cracks.
Despite its subject matter, American Honey is not a message movie about social ills and downtrodden youth. Arnold took some inspiration from a 2007 article in The New York Times detailing the exploitation and abuse suffered by mag crews, but she's more interested in their members' resilience and knack for making surrogate families of their crews. Arnold even manages to find an almost touching beauty in the heartland's desolate strip malls and Wal-Mart parking lots serving as de facto community hubs.
Though shot in the now jarringly squarish format of early Hollywood films, American Honey sometimes recalls the films of Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life), who finds an almost spiritual grace in everyday life and the natural world. Arnold is not afraid to linger on a shot of fireflies floating through trees at sunset to generate just the right vibe for her impressionistic film.
The director also achieves a rare authenticity by "streetcasting" her film with non-actors found in those parking lots, at state fairs and on southern beaches during spring break. Arnold took her cast and crew on a spontaneous two-month, 10,000-mile road trip to shoot American Honey. Novice actors largely were instructed to appear as themselves. Keough (who looks more than a bit like her grandfather Elvis Presley) and Shia LaBeouf (as Crystal's top salesman and crew trainer, Jake) balance the amateur cast with needed acting chops and professionalism.
At the center of the film is an actress named Sasha Lane (found on a Florida beach with no previous acting experience) as Star. American Honey is Star's story, and Lane comes through for the film with a memorably strong-yet-vulnerable presence.
American Honey's story is minimalist by design, and some will surely see this 162-minute film as ponderous and slow. It all seems a bit of a Rorschach test, wide open to interpretation. Like any good road trip, it's all about the experience — and what you take away from it may well be a function of what you bring to the party.