Released to grand critical reception and seemingly forgotten about afterwards, American Honey is among the biggest snubs of this awards season. With this film, writer and director Andrea Arnold takes her mastery of social realism abroad, focusing on the disenfranchised poor in the American countryside. Star, played by first-time actress Sasha Lane, is the anchor of the film – a sprawling road movie that has no narrative through-line other than the tale of the misfit children-turned-magazine salesmen, and the strange ‘family’ that has developed on the road.

The choice to use a cast of amateurs turns out to be an inspired one – no matter how unlikeable some of them might get, Star and the other kids feel so authentic that they are always sympathetic – victims of circumstance rather than of their own making. In this sense Shia LaBeouf is the odd one out here, but even he turns in a solid performance as the group’s best salesman Jake – even if it often leans too far towards the “look how crazy I am!” school of acting.

American Honey
Sasha Lane as Star. Courtesy of: Universal

Arnold makes the bold choice of shooting the film in a confined and boxy 4:3 ratio, forcing the camera in even closer or even further away than usual to its subject, similar to Xavier Dolan’s film Mommy – which similarly matches an emotional tale about a misfit family against a background of social struggle. The film feels simultaneously personal and observational with its extensive use of single shots and close-ups, as we get an emotional portrait of a so called ‘underclass’ that doesn’t often draw this kind of attention.

Veteran of acclaimed films like Fish Tank and Red Road, Arnold knows just how to get the point across as to how the characters in American Honey live – all we need is one look at the inside of Star’s fridge to get an idea of how desperate she might be to provide for the two younger children in her care.

This isn’t to say that the film isn’t without its joyous moments – the traditions of the road movie genre provide the the expected thrills and moments of anarchy, as Star encounters a group of creepy rich cowboys, attempts to rip off various demographics of people on her travels, and spends a lot of time dancing with the misfit crew of teenagers. This being a film about teenager freed from the constraints and expectations of middle class life in the suburbs, there’s plenty of partying to go around.

Courtesy of: Universal

In one of the film’s funnier moments, Star and Jake are invited into one of these middle class suburban homes, as a young girl’s bizarre birthday party goes on in the background. The contrast between the wealthy and the poor is observed with alternating severity and humour, and it’s always fascinating to watch.

The film’s loose narrative that occupies a 163 minute running time is a daring idea that mostly pays off, the long and sprawling nature of the film comes very close to overstaying its welcome, but not quite. With a loud, pop-infused soundtrack and a wide variety of different American locations, American Honey is a masterful pairing of the thrills of youth, and a disturbing and unfiltered look at class difference in the US.

Dir: Andrea Arnold
Prd: Thomas Benski, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Lucas Ochoa, Pouya Shahbazian, Alice Weinberg
Scr: Andrea Arnold

Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Raymond Coalson, Chad McKenzie Cox, Verronikah Ezell, Arielle Holmes, Garry Howell, Crystal B. Ice, McCaul Lombardi, Shawna Rae Moseley, Dakota Powers, Isaiah Stone, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Christopher David Wright, Will Patton
Country: UK, USA
Runtime: 163 minutes

American Honey is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download now.