Whenever I talk about my first love it's usually less about love than it is about the lessons I learned. I still cringe sometimes remembering things that were said and done back then. Things I would never stand for today. The simple truth is that I was too young to know any better. I was still figuring out who I was and what I wanted. Still learning the boundaries of what I would and wouldn't do for someone's attention. Desire can be frightening and confusing for young women, yet it can also put us on the path toward discovering who we are and what we really want. This is the path Star (Sasha Lane) is treading in American Honey, the latest work from Fish Tank writer/director, Andrea Arnold.
It feels reductive to describe American Honey as simply being about a young girl leaving her troubled past behind, or as the tale of a girl in love -- as if either of these topics should ever be considered simple. This movie is about coming of age, about Star's journey from a life she was forced to live to one where she now has the freedom to become the person she hopes to be. It's also a literal journey, as most of the nearly three hour run-time is spent on the road in the cramped quarters of a van with a vibrant cast of characters. Arnold's style of filmmaking puts the audience in the backseat, taking them on an intimate ride across the Midwest with these teens and twenty-somethings. By the end you feel as if you know them and, similar to Star, you've made some lasting connections.
Of course, it's desire that first sets Star on her path. Once she locks eyes with Jake (Shia Labeouf in his best performance yet) she makes the decision to leave her burdensome life and follow him and the others on the road. Outside of the territorial Krystal (Riley Keough), the group welcomes Star with open arms and it's not long before she's singing along with them to the evocative soundtrack. The music adds another layer to the characters with the songs setting the tone and telling the stories of their lives. The moments on the road are many and every relationship Star forms happens naturally before your eyes. Nothing in the movie feels rushed or disingenuous.
Star's connection with Jake is so organic that you sense her longing for him when he isn't there. The energy and urgency of their desire for each other ignites with every glance. Her developing feelings for him, while obvious to everyone, are suffered in silence. She doesn't fawn over him or go out of her way to make her feelings known. She merely makes the most of the time they have together and, in contrast to many other portrayals of young romance, their connection never feels contrived. And while their relationship is the driving force of the movie, Arnold never diminishes Star's story to that of a girl chasing after a guy.
What I appreciate most about Arnold's portrayal of young women (see also the unforgettable performance from Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank) is that she doesn't deprive them of making mistakes and she never judges them when they do. She allows Star the freedom to make her own choices, good or bad, because she respects that this is how she'll grow. She allows her to be strong enough to take care of herself, while simultaneously longing to lose herself in love. This movie isn't about watching a girl fumble awkwardly through life and love. It's about watching a girl make her own choices, deal with the consequences, and learn from her mistakes. It's the genuine journey of a young woman seeking a better life for herself.
While Star's dreams may differ from our own, it's the journey we relate to. There's a special moment during one of the many sing-a-longs in the van where two characters lock eyes and something unsaid passes between them. It's a moment that wouldn't exist without all the others that came before it. I don't want to give too much away, but you'll know it when it happens because you'll feel it. I felt it because I've experienced it many times in my own life. It's one of those moments that only exists when you've shared a part of yourself with someone else. In American Honey Andrea Arnold has given us many moments like this, reminding us of how far we've come and how much we've learned from those we met along the way.