Untrained Teen Actors and Actresses Shine in Arthouse Drama 'American Honey'

Brit writer-director Andrea Arnold reportedly found the inspiration for American Honey, her gritty new drama that focuses on derelict teens who go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions, from reading various articles about “mag crews” that travel the country in rented passenger vans, using teenagers to canvas neighborhoods and swindle consumers.

An Atlantic Monthly article reports that the Child Labor Coalition at one point estimated that more than 50,000 children worked for these crews. The movie opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.

Arnold doesn’t necessarily make American Honey into a message movie. Rather, she tries to capture what might drive someone like Star (Sasha Lane), the movie’s flawed protagonist, into joining such a crew and what life might be like on the road with one of these crews. Star, who rummages through dumpsters to find food to feed her boyfriend’s kids, meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf) one day as she attempts to hitch a ride home. Jake and a motley crew of teenage kids roll past in a passenger van. Jake says she should come with them as they head to Kansas City. She agrees and shows up the next morning with suitcase in hand.

Star instantly takes to Jake, a “manager” who walks and talks with a certain confidence. He wears suspender straps and thinks of himself as "gangsta." His braided hair and eye piercing speaks to his street-wise personality. He promises to train Star, and the two start going door-to-door to sell magazine subscriptions. Jake lies to potential customers and tells them that he and Star are brother and sister who have hit hard times. The subscriptions, he says, will help him earn a college scholarship.

Star hates the lying and refuses to play along. As a result, her low sales figure make her a target for Krystal (Riley Keough), a self-described “American honey” who runs the crew. She treats Jake as her personal servant. In one scene, Jake rubs suntan lotion on her legs as she assails Star for not making her numbers. Krystal makes it clear she doesn’t like Star; Star doesn’t care for Krystal either. The tension between them fuels the film. 

Throughout it all, crew members regularly drink and do drugs. They have premarital sex. They dance to hip-hop songs as if they’re members of some kind of Native American tribe. And they fight each other for their places in the pack. 

While Arnold might be guilty of "telling" more than "showing" with her script (characters regularly speak about their hope and dreams in a manner that seems unnatural), she effectively captures the recklessness of American youth. She reportedly visited various beaches, streets, parking lots, construction sites and state fairs as she cast the movie. The untrained actors and actresses really shine in the movie and give it a realistic feel. 

By filming in the country’s heartleand (places like Kansas and Nebraska) over a 56-day period, Arnold makes good use of the American landscape too, particularly when the crew ventures out to rural areas like the oil fields of Oklahoma.

Ultimately, the 163-minute movie achieves a hypnotic quality that makes up for the lack of significant plot development.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
Scroll to read more Movie Reviews & Stories articles
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.