Every other Sunday, I have dinner with my family. Specifically, my mom’s mom, my uncle, my aunts, and my five-year-old cousin. After my grandpa died a couple years ago, so many things changed, but that fortnightly dinner has survived. Part of that tradition is the mediocre television my grandpa used to make us watch–he simply liked everything, so much of which just isn’t very good. This, along with Baca brownies, has survived. Yet, now, we watch Hallmark movies. These are feel-good romances that follow a rigid, light-hearted structure. They star gorgeous, white, straight thirty-somethings who never worry about money, and whose houses are always clean. Sometimes their careers are in conflict, until they aren’t. Everyone is kind and charming, and everything culminates in the tidiest endings. Hallmark movies are WASP-y comfort food, no matter how ironically they’re appreciated. They’re easy, morally-unambiguous, workmanlike productions that have almost no imagination or risk, but that work.
American Honey is the furthest thing from a Hallmark movie. This is a dirty, morally murky, often formless road epic where anything can happen. Andrea Arnold has few films to her name, but each are as inspired and thoughtful as one could want from an auteur who is as in love with the Dogme 95 movement as anyone else. American Honey is no different. A sort of spiritual sequel to her 2009 film Fish Tank, American Honey is a coming-of-age story of an outsider exploring a world with an eye that only an outsider can. Arnold’s British eye captures Middle America with wonder, but with astonishing detail, reveling in every aged nook and cranny, every note of an endless playlist of trap music, every drag of a cigarette.
Star (Sasha Lane) is named for her mother’s philosophy that everyone is made from the stars in the sky–because the film makes no bones that this young woman will be the culmination of her experiences. And Star is poor. Absolutely dirt poor. She’s so poor that her and her siblings have to dumpster dive for a halfway decent meal. She’s so poor that the chicken they got from the dumpster might be nipped on by her dogs. She’s so poor that she might have a book called The Universe that could teach her about what else exists outside of her world, but a half-eaten bowl of pasta sits atop the novel, because mere survival comes first. So, when she locks eyes with Jack (Shia LaBeouf), as they cross paths at a Big K, where their impending romance is announced with Rihanna’s “We Found Love” playing over the store’s PA–a sequence charming enough to make Gene Kelly envious–though, we soon discover he’s as emotionally abusive as Gene Kelly, as well. He extends a job offer to drive around the country to sell magazine subscriptions. Star is sold This is a woman with pictures of wild animals on her crayon-graffitied walls, but whose fish live in a two-liter bottle filled with a shallow liquid that may as well be piss. With no money, and a father who sexually abuses her, she leaves those childish things behind–going so far as to ditch her little brother and little sister with their mother at a line dance.
The next morning, Star meets her band of misfits, one of whom introduces himself by flashing her, only to be chastised and jostled by their presumed co-workers. All in their late-teens or early-twenties, none of these kids are all that special or interesting. They’re bored, incestuous, almost all white trash who drink and smoke on long drives in their crowded van. We never really meet them, and neither does Star–though, they’re all completely recognizable, even in broad strokes. Far more attention is given to the side-window shots of the speeding countryside from Star’s point-of-view, as if she’s looking for something. Yet, she never seems to find anything. Star’s always a little trapped, no matter where she goes. Maybe this is because she’s in a car with too many people. Maybe this is because of the shallow camera focus and the narrow aspect ratio, boxing her in. Maybe this is because she’s always looking for a ride to anywhere other than where she is. When Star sees a trapped insect or animal, her impulse is to free them. And when, late in the film, she comes across a family poorer than she was back home, all she can do is buy them some fresh groceries.
Perhaps this is why she gravitates towards Jake, a human mirror who admits that he will say and do whatever he needs to make the sale. Star always has her eye on Jake, and he seems to have a particular interest in her–despite shacking up with the caravan’s no-nonsense leader Krystal (Riley Keough). Jake is so incredible to watch, and credit must go to LaBeouf’s raw, career-best performance. As much of a pop culture punching bag as Shia LaBeouf has become, he could become one of the greats at any time. The appeal of Jake is plain. He’s charismatic and unpredictable, and is an effortless salesperson. Simultaneously, he comes off as pinned-down by Krystal, and therefore, predatory to other women, and possessive of Star. As he’s training her to manipulate her way into holding down her job, Star undermines Jake in the middle of a pitch–largely out of jealousy, after Jake hits on and gawks at the thirteen-year-old daughter of a prospective sale. At this point, Jake furiously proclaims that he’s throwing away a present he got for Star, which he knows will bring her back in. This romance is odd, because Jake does seem to genuinely feel for Star, and to her, he’s freedom personified, seemingly guarded from Krystal, his keeper. Jake is also the kind of fake nice guy who will get furious at Star when he only thinks she had sex with another guy, but will throw a fit and run away when she calls him out for continuing to sleep with Krystal. He’s a mess, and maybe even believes that he loves Star, but he’s toxic.
As much as Jake’s volatile presence provides some tangible, albeit high-school-histrionic thrust that propels Star through the movie, the core relationship is with Star and the world around her. For as many stolen glances as Jake and Star exchange, Star stops aching to get back to Jake before the first third of the film, and is running away from him by the halfway point. She runs off with other groups who take her to lavish houses with great liquor, or to oilfields with men who pay her hundreds of dollars to use her for their sexual fetishes. When Star does hitch a ride with truckers, or wealthy cowboys, she always lucks back into meeting with her team, even though she’d rather walk on the side of the freeway to get to the next truck stop, or wake up early to hang out with a bear. What makes Star so refreshing is that she’s not simply a vessel for some cinema vérité postcard imagery, capturing millennial debauchery. She’s a rebel. She sticks up for herself. She’s allowed to have reckless sex with the guy that we know could do some serious long-term damage. Whenever we see consequences for Star, they’re a reflection of where she fits into her own experiences–again, part of the insular feel of the film. Star is an explorer all her own, and exists only to move herself forward.
American Honey is hardly the first arthouse film about young people hopping from place to place as an exercise in self-discovery. From Two-Lane Blacktop, to Y Tu Mama Tambien, to anything vaguely riffing on Kerouac’s On the Road, American Honey treads quite a bit of familiar storytelling. But few films look and feel so real. Andrea Arnold’s travelogue of flyover states is not so loving that the film glorifies poverty, or wants us to root for these obnoxious hustlers who’ve got nothing better to do than make up stories that’ll score them a few hundred dollars, most of which they can’t even keep. Instead, we’re just happy when these characters are happy, and we’re distressed when they’re distressed. In that sense, American Honey is a less-nimble version of Spring Breakers–another, very underrated, treatise on the current generation. Still, American Honey is a grand, often magical, occasionally plodding, but moving journey. This is a film without a clear formula or path, but that finds a way into the soul, nonetheless.