American Honey starts like a lot of hedonistic road-trip narratives. Dissatisfied with her dead-end-at-18 life, Star (Sasha Lane) seeks an escape route into a new future — or really any future at all. She is desperate and headstrong, a dynamic character whom director Andrea Arnold teases out with thoughtful nuance on screen. But while Star's coming-of-age story unfolds, Arnold is also telling a story about a particular variety of American religious iconography: cash as gospel, pop stars as prophets, and touring van as both pulpit and pew. What this journey adds up to is a search for community, intertwined with the American Dream. In the first scene, Star spots Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a hot, rat-tailed grafter, in a supermarket. She swiftly leaves her life to join a gang of kids who crisscross the nation selling magazine subscriptions, under the guise of "exploring America." This so-called "mag crew" and their menacing overseer Crystal (Riley Keough) traverse high- and low-income areas, trying to get people to believe that spending a few dollars on a magazine subscription can really help the teens attain a better life. Star is stubborn when she first climbs into the mag crew's white van, the primary setting for much of the near three-hour film. On the road, the band of misfits sing along to Rae Sremmurd and Juicy J with their whole hearts, turning the echoing club anthems into worship hymns and the van’s seats into church pews. They pass blunts like communion bread — a sacrament binding them to each other and to a certain system of beliefs.
A lot of great filmmaking happens in that van, to Arnold's credit: In some scenes, Jake and Star are close enough for us to hear their hearts beating in sync; in other moments, the vehicle feels massive and the crawl space between seats seems to go on for miles. They sing along to an E-40 song called "Choices," a track so important to the fabric of the film that Keough had a lyric tattooed on her wrist during filming, according to The Daily Beast. The Bay Area rapper's mantra is central to the film's ethos: "I'mma stay gettin' money (yeah, yeah, yeah) / And I ain't gotta sell my soul." The crew shares its sales pitch — that the money they earn from selling magazines can make a difference in their lives — like gospel, and their life on the road is imbued with a kind of religious fervor. They hold a regular battle called “Loser Night” every two weeks to keep the lowest sellers in line, during which the Migos song "Bricks" plays in the background. Everyone gathers around a campfire, bathing in its light. The feverish energy makes the event feel closer to a Holy Roller rally than the boxing match that ultimately takes shape around the flames. These new-age merry pranksters structure their lives with half-baked traditions, but that does not make those traditions any less meaningful or important to them. On her first night, Star has to memorize a list of commandments (never be late to meetings, always get receipts for your sales). Everyone carries around their sales book at all times. Every move they make is shaped by the dogma of their own making.
Arnold is communicating something outside of a specific denomination, or even the idea of God, in American Honey. Perhaps because of her outside European perspective, she can see something clearly about America that Americans sometimes cannot: That there is a certain perceived holiness embedded in our sense of community, and a near religious zeal to chasing our futures.
They pass blunts like communion bread — a sacrament binding them to each other and to a certain system of beliefs.
The imagery and themes Arnold employ certainly feel familiar to me, and allowed me to newly understand something about my own search for community and belief. One summer during middle school, my mom bribed me to pack my bags and spend a week at a Baptist church camp, not far from where Star meets Jake in that Oklahoma supermarket. Sleeping in a cabin and reading the Bible on the porch were experiences that I hated at the time: It felt like everyone else's Bible had a book called "Faith" and a chapter called "How to Perform It Convincingly" — pages that seemed missing from my copy. But through Arnold’s lens, I understood what everyone else was discovering in those midnight Bible studies that I wasn't: that the right song or the right prayer might just open the door to some kind of salvation. What American Honey posits is that a church with a steeple isn’t the only place where a sense of holiness can rise up: that halo effect can come from community, not just doctrine. In some ways, faith might reveal itself through booze instead of closely reading the Bible. Or while you're traveling the country in the back of an 11-seat van, singing at the top of your lungs. The feeling of community — of graced belonging — does not necessarily protect American Honey's characters from falling away from the faith. Star is still naive enough to think that anything is fair game to trade for money, even her own body; Jake's relationship with the mag crew's leader, Crystal, is clearly on the wrong side of a line. In the end, the dreams Star and Jake chase seem hollow. But Arnold's camera moves through all this with an aching kind of intimacy. American Honey is a beautiful film that just might make you believe — but in what, you'll have to decide for yourself.