American Honey (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Graham Fuller
Produced by Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Pouya Shabazian, Alice Weinberg, Thomas Benski, and Lucas Ochoa; written and directed by Andrea Arnold; cinematography by Robbie Ryan; edited by Joe Bini; production design by Kelly McGehee; sound by Rashad Omar; costume design by Alex Bovaird; starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Raymond Coalson, Chad McKenzie Cox, Verronikah Ezell, Arrielle Holmes, Garry Howell, Crystal B. Ice, McCaul Lombardi, Shawna Rae Moseley, Dakota Powers, Isaiah Stone, Kenneth Kory Tucker, Christopher David Wright, and Will Patton. Color, 163 min. An A24 release.
A disturbing realization must be made about American Honey. Andrea Arnold’s road movie tells the story of an underprivileged eighteen-year-old girl who escapes a sequence of potentially sexually threatening situations to discover that, only by surviving a massive insult to her heart, will she be able to enter adulthood. It is a lesson most people have to learn sooner or later, but Arnold sets the bar abnormally high for her protagonist, Star (Sasha Lane), who, though feisty, plucky, and winning, is seemingly a girl with a violation wish—as politically incorrect as that sounds. The disturbing part is that Arnold doesn’t adequately reassure the audience that the emotional resources Star discovers to help her move on from her broken first love affair will prevent her from acting out in the future. On the evidence of her repeated misadventures she could, worryingly for the viewer, end up as dead as the fated Lulu (Louise Brooks) in Pandora’s Box (1928), the childlike Beth (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves (1996), or the cocky drifter (Summer Phoenix) in the neglected indie Arresting Gena (1997). Star’s survival doesn’t lessen the anxiety her welfare elicits from the audience.
Arnold’s fourth feature and first to be shot in the United States begins with Star, a dreadlocked and scrappy mixed-race hoyden, scrabbling for a discarded supermarket chicken in a dumpster in the eastern Oklahoma town of Muskogee, her two younger stepsiblings in tow. This squalid beginning has the tang of Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) at its most putrescent. In a conscious echo of Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), Star’s stepfather (or maybe he is her mother’s boyfriend) has been abusing her sexually—to what extent is not revealed—while her mother is preoccupied with her job as a line-dancing teacher (implicitly an attempt to put her own life in order). Attracted to a charismatic, rat-tailed hustler called Jake (Shia LeBeouf), whom she sees dancing to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” astride a checkout counter in a strip-mall Kmart, the unformed, unloved, and unmoored Star jumps at his offer to join him in the crew of teenage and twentyish magazine subscription sellers he helps drive around America. The two, it is intimated, fall in love at first sight. Because the film shares Star’s subjectivity, however, Jake’s feelings are filtered through hers and remain unreadable. One of the joys of the film is observing Star instinctively adapt her behavior to lure Jake, whom she senses is romantically elusive. Lane’s flow in capturing the nuances of Star’s “adjustments” marks her as a natural actress.
Krystal (Riley Keough), the gimlet-eyed pyramid schemer who bosses the crew with the unsentimental aura of a madam, is the film’s bitch-goddess mother figure who causes the vulnerable Star to play out her Electra complex with Jake as the male love object. The structuring absence here is Star’s real father—all the more intriguing as a black man who has been effaced from his daughter’s story but has bequeathed to her his skin color, an element in her marginalization to which Arnold has no need to draw attention. Star’s biracial identity strongly aligns her with the Lascar Heathcliff (played by the black actors Solomon Glave and James Howson) in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011)—as does the swinishness of their respective persecutors, the stepfather in Star’s case and Hindley Earnshaw in Heathcliff’s. Like Katie Jarvis, who played Mia, the statutory rape victim in Fish Tank, Lane was a nonprofessional actor when Arnold discovered her. Star need not have been played by an unknown part-African American, but one only has to imagine a polished white starlet in the role, Elle Fanning, say, to see how much more sociopolitical resonance the raw, passionate Lane brings to the character. Instantaneously, she conveys the plight of America’s no-hoper Millennials. The nonprofessional actors who play the other young misfits in Krystal’s van—a twenty-first-century underclass equivalent of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus, given the amount of drugs and booze on board—tacitly embody victims of parental abuse, abandonment, and addiction. They have come together because nobody wants them or loves them responsibly.
By her own admission, and as her three previous features and Oscar-winning short Wasp (2003) demonstrate, Arnold is not a schematic director, and it would be surprising to learn that she had given much thought to the psychosexual histories of these kids. Yet psychological traits will “out” in most movies, whatever their writers and directors intend, alongside deliberate dabs of social commentary. When Star is partnered with Jake to teach her how he bluffs his way into middle-class suburban homes (and steals from them, to her disgust), they meet a gullible Christian woman who is hosting a party for her tween daughter. After the woman prates that the devil has taken hold of Star and Jake, Star caustically rejoins, “I think the devil has got hold of your daughter,” and indicates the girl and her friends posing suggestively in the backyard, for Jake’s benefit, as if they’d been studying the Pussycat Dolls on YouTube. Troubling because it shows how early in life young girls are conditioned to sexualize themselves, the scene also strikes a discordant note as the one that precedes Star and Jake’s first kiss, following a chase across the suburban lawns.
This is not to suggest that Jake is anything other than amused by the girls, but rather to speculate that Star recognizes the danger in their innocent self-sexualizing, something that registers with her morally and perhaps at a deeper level. Different aspects of sexual abuse are pronouncedly in the air in American Honey, as they are in other American movies (see especially Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen’s 2016 Audrie & Daisy), the current cultural-political discourse (Anthony Weiner, Donald Trump), and in Arnold’s oeuvre. In Red Road, Jackie (Kate Dickie) seeks to revenge herself on Clyde (Tony Curran), who had struck and killed her husband and child when driving under the influence of drugs, by seducing him and then crying rape to the police. In Fish Tank, fifteen-year-old Mia is seduced by her mother’s married boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).
Star thrice unconsciously sets herself up to be raped. Reeling from the intensity and volatility of her as-yet unconsummated relationship with Jake, she first takes off with three white-Stetson-hatted good ol’ boys (one played by Will Patton)—probably rich oilmen. She drinks excessively and behaves provocatively at their private poolside party. The scene is set for gang rape when Jake shows up with a handgun to save her, as implausibly as if he were the Seventh Cavalry rescuing a stagecoach. Having got one over on the middle-aged lechers, Star and Jake drive away and have sex, finally—in one of the most convincing and touching examples of ardent teen lust-slaking in recent American cinema.
Star’s second encounter with an older man is sinisterly set up by the venal Krystal, who—in a parody of corporate worker exploitation—uses class distinctions and the youthful sexuality of her crew members to help them ensnare subscription buyers. “I want you to dress like dirty white trash and they’ll pity you,” she tells them, giving out the appropriate clothing. Jake and other handsome boys are sent to work on lonely housewives. Worst of all, Krystal prostitutes the girls to oilfield workers deprived of women but with money to burn. The one who drives away with Star and offers her $1000 for sex seems torn between courtliness and desire; Jake, her grubby knight, once again intervenes. The morning after, Star stumbles across a field boggy with oil or ordure, the kind of desolate liminal place not far from a town where murdered hookers’ bodies could be dumped. Still later, Star hitches a ride with a cattle-truck driver who would be equally capable of making her disappear, yet turns out to be a fatherly type traveling with his dog—and a man who reads and enjoys magazines.
As it traverses the hinterland, providing windows into various social classes, each of which is fair game for Krystal, American Honey becomes a kind of bitter allegory of the American Dream—“bitter” because the land of milk and honey implied in the multivalent title (which connotes lost childhood in the eponymous Lady Antebellum song) is available only to the wealthy, the well-educated (often the same), or those driven, like Krystal, to exploit others. A lyrical but scruffy mood piece, the tone set by Star herself, the film succeeds less as a social drama or allegory, however, than as a personal drama of a reckless girl living haphazardly and craving the emotional security that would provide a foundation stone for her life.
An aura of contrivance is present in each of the potential rape scenarios and Star’s liberation from them. Whereas Lars von Trier, as pathological a filmmaker as Hitchcock, cruelly arranges Beth’s off-screen desecration in Breaking the Waves, Arnold’s insistence on Star’s coming out alive and more or less untainted is perhaps attributable to her own pathological needs. From a psychological standpoint, Star’s putting herself in such perilous positions cannot be rationalized simply as the behavior of an angry and impulsive girl. Her self-destructive drive, triggered by the shock of romantic and sexual love and the discovery that Jake is under Krystal’s thrall as one of her toy boys, directs viewers back to a shot of Star’s stepfather groping her and to questions concerning how her long-gone father had treated her. Her mysterious past, which Arnold leaves unexamined, holds the key to her future.
As American Honey rambles along, blending a ruralized Ashcan lyricism with Arnold’s familiarly tender metaphoric nature imagery (including butterflies, insects, and dogs), it makes too literal its diegetic and extradiegetic use of pop songs—mostly in the trap music, country, and hip-hop genres. It is seldom a good idea for a filmmaker to illustrate an emotion or an event with a song chosen for its pertinence to the narrative, simply because it undercuts the power of the images. In addition to harnessing “We Found Love” in order to emphasize Star and Jake’s moment of romantic cathexis—and later a shift in their relationship—the film simplistically uses songs like Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream,” and Raury’s “God Whisper.” Wittier song selections—Ciara’s “Ride” for the suburban tweens’ dance routine, for example—remove the viewer from the narrative. In contrast, the kids’ rendition on the bus of the title song not only has a spontaneous quality but also satisfyingly consecrates the togetherness that is all they really have.
Even as she’s one of them, Star is a girl apart—innately a ministering angel. Her small acts of kindness seemingly deliver her from evil. Cynically sent by Krystal to hawk magazines to people living in a rotting trailer park, she chances on children (perhaps Native American) whose mother has either drunk or drugged herself to sleep and whose fridge is empty. Star leaves and then returns to them with food (that she hasn’t plucked from a dumpster). Having earlier rescued a bee from the good ol’ boys’ swimming pool, at the end of the film she helps out a turtle precisely at the moment she realizes that her relationship with Jake is over.
Submerging herself in a pond as she returns the creature to its native element, Star appears to be risking her life again, or even drowning herself, but her re-emergence transforms the scene into a baptism. She comes out of the water a self-reliant woman, supposedly. If her psychological pattern means she will sooner or later get into trouble with men again, her dream of having a family and a home becomes, once it is voiced, our fixed goal for her. The first step she must take is off the road.
Graham Fuller is Film Editor at Culture Trip in New York.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1