A teenage girl with nothing to lose joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and gets caught up in a whirlwind of hard partying, law bending and young love as she criss-crosses the Midwest with a band of misfits in American Honey (IMDb).
Written and Directed by Andrea Arnold
Available to rent and purchase in physical and digital formats
This post was originally published by the author on WordPress, November 6 2016.
Andrea Arnold’s latest film experience American Honey has been released at the right time. As Donald Trump’s rise has seen the opening of a Pandora’s box of white rage flying out into the face of the world’s consciousness, people living outside of America as well as in the “mainstream” (meaning: represented in media and talked to in advertising) parts of America, primarily metropolitan areas, are finally realizing that such a group of American citizens exist, and have been sitting on the fringes for some time and have, by doing so, built up a considerable amount of anger at their ignored existence.
The film depicts the truth of America, the ugly truth, that is finally letting itself out – by having its protagonist, an 18 year-old named Star (Sasha Lane), be one of the many poor, struggling Americans getting by in the “middle of nowhere.” Anyone who has ever driven from city to city in the U.S. – no matter how large or small the destination and departure points – has passed the “in-between” spaces where these people live (and where most of this film takes place): the stretches of highway that pass by indistinguishable motels, fast food chains, gas stations and seemingly nothing else.
We are introduced to Star as she digs through a dumpster with her young siblings, looking for dinner. Their only way to get back home is to hitch-hike, which they unsuccessfully try to do alongside the highway (the only roads in these places), before Star takes the kids inside of a K-Mart for a break and a Mountain Dew. It’s in that K-Mart that Star sees Jake (Shia Labeouf) and the rest of the magazine crew for the first time (outside of a passing roadside glance). Jake knows Star is interested in him and makes flirtatious faces at her. The rest of the crew grabs her fascination when they start screaming and dancing to the sounds of “We Found Love” playing over the store’s speaker. It’s an appropriate song for this story, one carried by an intoxicating idea that is irresistible to anyone with a pulse. Everyone always feels that they are in a hopeless place before love comes along.
After leaving her siblings with their birth mom, who has seemingly been dancing away her pain and troubles at a country bar for eternity, Star does what she needs to do and heads out with the crew as a new employee. They are a group of ten or so teenagers and young adults who travel the “middle of nowheres” selling magazines door to door to make a small profit. They are a collection of hopeless kids who, per the interview the crew leader Crystal (Riley Keough) conducts, do not have anybody who will miss them.
The magazine crew is a ragtag bunch, to say the least. There is a member who keeps a pet squirrel, a guy who frequently pulls his dick out, a girl who is obsessed with and empathizes with Darth Vader, an “emo” girl with dyed hair, a guy with acne scars but who can grind like no one’s business, and of course, Jake, the top seller with a fully braided rat-tail. They are not the glamorized depictions of “loner teens” seen on TV or in pop songs. Part of this is because Arnold took care to cast non-actors, young adults who have not groomed themselves to be head shot- and photoshoot- ready. This non-glamour effect also helps to highlight that these kids are the kind that would easily be ignored by anyone outside of their created community. But Arnold takes care to give them distinguishable personalities and characteristics, to assert their individuality and personhood when it would be so easy to write them off as “types.” It would be very easy for Arnold – who is actually British – to attribute ignorant and “hick” stereotypes that are often associated with this person from M.O.N (middle of nowheres). A lot of Americans unfamiliar with M.O.Ns think of “these people” as only existing in Southern hamlets, where the laws and the traditions are backward. But, as Arnold points out in one scene, there are nowheres everywhere in America. As every crew member introduces themselves to Star, they state where they’re from – Texas, Miami, Baltimore, New Jersey… This “type” isn’t tied to one area of the country, and cannot be written off as an inherent or unavoidable characteristic of that area.
As the film progresses, we can see why this magazine crew is so appealing to Star, despite the sometimes tense and abusive relationship she has with it, and its “leaders” Crystal and Jake. Her attraction to this group is similar to the attraction other residents of “nowheres” might be having to Trump. This is ignoring the specific racist, xenophobic, misogynistic feelings (etc..) that may inspire support of such a man, but is acknowledging the basic desperation of a lot of his supporters – many who fall into that invisible, white and poor group who, because they are white, believe they should have had all doors open to them and are angry as to why they do not and are not wealthy like others. I am always reminded of the quote attributed to John Steinbeck, that socialism could never take root in America because we don’t acknowledge the possibility of class divides and so “the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” [*]
The desperate and depressed are people like those dancing alongside the mother of Star’s half-siblings, and the parents of some of the teens in the crew. Star is taken with the promise seen in Jake and Crystal’s business the way some of these American citizens are taken with Trump and what he appears to have and could potentially give them. One of the first things that connects Star to Jake is the gold-studded iPhone case he drops in the K-Mart. She stares, dazzled, at the case as she asks him if that’s really his. We find out later that the phone belongs to Crystal, who uses her profits from the business and her status as team leader to buy herself “fashionable” clothes, self tanner and makeup so she can emulate those with status above hers. In that glitzy gold phone case, Star sees a kind of careless extravagance that she has never been able to enjoy. In the visage of Trump, millionaire and businessman since birth, many citizens see a similar type of luxury and ease of opportunity that they have never seen (and with no help from Trump, will never see). The act of Crystal and Jake reaching out to Star and inviting her into this potential luxury is too good of an opportunity for her to pass up. Jake manages to recruit her so easily because he singles her out and makes her feel special, and admired, in a way that she hasn’t felt before.
In the way that Crystal’s “glamour” is aspirational and appealing to Star and the other crew members, Jake’s ability to lie with ease to please whoever is in front of him is another famous trait of Trump. Jake explains to Star that he knows immediately what a customer needs or wants him to be and he says what he needs to to get that sale. We see this when he knocks on a rich woman’s house and is greeted by her tween daughter. He gives her a few lines (“Feel [my suit]. What’s it made of? Boyfriend material”) that appeal to her and then sells the mother on the idea of him as a struggling college student working to raise money for an educational club.
This scene is interesting, because despite her infatuation with Jake, Star grows angry upon witnessing his easy lies and the condescending attitude of the woman he is trying to please. You want to play into her fantasy? Star’s entry into this woman’s house is her first experience with wealth, and you can sense that it is part of what angers her too. The daughter is having a birthday party, and a pile of gifts sits in the open living room. The mother tries to use her self-appointed role of “good Christian” to refuse to help them, reacting negatively to Star’s rudeness towards her. It’s a disaster of a meeting, but it’s a good representation of what the “them” are imagined to be – or often are – to the “us” of Star’s world in an Us vs. Them dynamic.
As Star continues her work with the magazine crew, she struggles with her feelings for Jake and whether his actions mean what they appear to, as Crystal toys with Star’s emotions and warns her about her renegade methods of selling magazines. Star isn’t looking for much in this world – someone to love her, not abuse her, and her very own trailer with a “bunch of kids.” It’s pretty close to the “American Dream” tied to this country: that you can work and earn a right to your own space to call your own here, and that you and your family will prosper happily upon it. But Star’s attempts to follow the first signs of glamour and minor wealth, and love that may just be infatuation mixed with emotional manipulation that cross her path only leads her to more of what she had in her old life: unreliable caretakers, being used as a sexual object, and feeling generally without a family or home. But, in the final few moments of the film Star seems to have found some sort of piece within herself. She knows who Crystal and Jake are now, and is appropriately wary about their words and actions. She has some affection for her other misfits in the crew, but she has gained a new sense of independence about her and confidence to go with herself. It’s easy and tempting to go along with the first shiny iPhone case you see and the pretty words you hear, but you ultimately have to ask yourself: Are these people helping me? And they never are.
photos: Holly Horner/IMDb