American Honey

American Honey ★★★½

Film #6 among my 52 Films by Women 2017

Writer-director Andrea Arnold brings us a road trip movie with an ambiguous message. How you interpret that message may very well determine whether you like the film or not. I, for one, am leaning toward liking this, but there's a dark aspect that holds me back from really loving it.

Let's start with Arnold's breakthrough young star in her feature debut, Sasha Lane as the main character Star, an 18-year-old loner with not a whole lot to lose and everything about life to learn. Star thinks because she has survived childhood herself, helped a couple of young children of an absentee mother and endured the abuses of their self-absorbed father, that she knows something of the world. In truth, she knows nothing.

Along comes smooth-talking, good-looking Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the top salesman and a recruiting specialist for a group of magazine salepeople headed by a sharp non-conformist businesswoman named Krystal (Riley Keough). Star is enticed to escape her dead-end life in Muskogee, Oklahoma and joins the sales crew heading to Kanas City, hopeful of making some money and living a life of freedom -- the American Dream, n'est se pas?

Others on the traveling sales team include the Darth Vader-obsessed Pagan (Arielle Holmes), the van driver Runt (Dakota Powers), dykish Q.T. (Veronica Ezell) and the hot blonde Katness (Veronica Ezell), to name a few. What will probably fly right over the heads of younger viewers is how ultra-traditional Krystal's approach to sales is, from songs and chants to build team spirit, bonuses for cash sales, and guidelines like "Be on time" and "Dress for success" to a five-step pitch similar to AIDCA that her associates are supposed to use to close sales. She also has low-performing salespeople compete in a "Losers Night" fight to determine who stays and who goes, putting to shame the coffee and steak knives incentives of "Glengarry Glenn Ross" (1992).

Star's guiding principle is honesty, which is in direct conflict with the lies her colleagues tell potential clients to close sales. She cares about life, whether it's a bee drowning in a swimming pool or a wasp trapped inside a house or latchkey kids ignored by their doped up mother. But she's also a woman of desires, wanting a better life and a sexy guy, Jake, who owes his allegiance to nobody.

The crew travels through Nebraska en route to Iowa, fleecing wealthy suburbanites with sob stories and stealing jewelry when unguarded. Star progresses from trainee to sales specialist quickly and flirts with prostitution as part of her pursuit of the almighty $$$. But there is a conscience at work here, and Arnold will not allow her "American Honey" to completely lose her way.

At Cannes, the director won the Jury Prize and a Special Mention for the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, plus a nomination for the Palm d'Or, well deserved. Those who have dubbed this film a "youthquake" are not far off the mark. It's certainly worth watching.

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