WITH ITS HAND-HELD camera and 3:4 ratio framing, American Honey feels like a casual home movie, shot by an invisible anthropologist, on the road, studying the mores of a gang of restless, rootless delinquents as they journey, in a large van, across the summertime Mid West. The anthropologist’s eye unobtrusively observes their pattern of happily hustling, stealing, conning, smoking, drinking and making out.
English director/writer Andrea Arnold’s clever script and affectless directing makes the whole thing feel unplanned and impromptu…as if it were real. The only give-aways are the repeated (somewhat arty) motifs signifying the discussion about (American?) freedom (a turtle released into a lake; a wasp freed from a glass; a flying squirrel domesticated and trapped in the van etc) that are at the heart of the movie.
It’s a dark, cynically forensic look at a world where the bubblegum innocence of the lyrics, “nothing sweeter than summertime and American honey” are heavily ironic.
These signifiers of freedom mainly represent the mindset of the lead protagonist, Star (a good enough first feature for Sasha Lane) through whose eyes we view the three-hour road trip of the movie. When we meet her, she’s bone poor, struggling to care for her sister’s two young kids and reluctantly giving in to her drunk partner’s quasi rape advances. A chance encounter with a cocky street hustler, Jake (an excellent Shia LaBoef) who seems to be the man in charge of a bunch of near feral youths, opens her door to escape… to the freedom she so yearns for.
It’s a freedom that Jake, and the actual leader of the tribe, Krystal (Riley Keough from Mad Max: Fury Road), present to her as “a business opportunity”. Freedom is business? The group they manage, a symbolic cross section of White middle-America, are in the ‘business’ of selling magazine subscriptions. And it’s serious business. For, despite all its trappings of unconstrained free living, they operate under strict codes of behaviour and under clear financial rules…where rewards are given for high performers and low performers are (physically) punished. This is an inverted, slightly surreal version of corporate America, with the sexy, semi-clad Krystal as the unquestioned President in charge of business affairs. And like corporate America, they’re making a living selling stuff that no one really needs (as we’re frequently reminded), often to people who can’t afford it. As Star’s mentor, Jake offers his secret of success: figure out the weak points – the dreams, the fears – of their prospects and use this as the ‘in’ to flog the subscriptions.
It’s capitalism in a nutshell.
The high spirited, carefree travels of the group, crowded together in the van (apart from Krystal, who, like all good corporate presidents, travels first class in a flashy convertible) take them across a cross section of a degenerate Americana: a group of wealthy businessmen openly lusting after Star, a girl young enough to be their daughter; a cautious, churchy, moralizing mother whose daughter openly flaunts her prepubescent sexuality; a destitute family, the children uncared for by parents, comatose on drugs etc.
At one point, engaged in one of the few meaningful conversations in the movie, Star is asked about her dreams for the future. She rambles on about wanting a house …the American dream in other words. But what she really longs for, and what, in its abstractness will remain forever out of her grasp is “freedom”. For “freedom” the movie seems to be saying, in this land of the free and home of the brave, is untethered, unmoored from anything. Star’s basic need for a freedom from abuse and poverty remains elusive and, as she slowly realizes, perhaps unattainable. And worse, it remains directionless: freedom to do what? To go where? Is this Star’s conundrum…or the country’s?
The group’s journey across the country mirrors the arc of Star’s emotional journey. It is a journey that sees her evolve from the gullible novice to the more seasoned pro. There’s a hard nut of decency at her heart, but, we’re made to wonder, as the movie closes, for how long.
American Honey is a good companion piece to the English examination of poverty, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. Both movies are brilliantly written (and shot in the same naturalistic style by cinematographer Robbie Ryan); so real, the audience is made to feel like an eavesdropper, a voyeur. Both movies grapple with the dreadful irony of mega rich societies harboring grinding poverty. And both movies despair of the potential of escape… and of the seedy reality, especially for women, that, in the face of poverty, you gotta do what you gotta do.
Poverty in the end is the ultimate inhibitor of freedom; the van in American Honey may seem to have the freedom to go anywhere, but really there’s only one road. And that one’s not leading anywhere.
Thank God for the artists. At least they’re boldly going… where governments and politicians fear to tread. In a recent interview, a Conservative big-wig dismissed Ken Loach’s dark analysis of modern Britain as just the fantasy of a story-teller. Some fantasy. Poverty, and the sense of a society simply drifting along with no-where to go were realities studiously avoided by the two US Presidential candidates. For Star, Jake’s seductive charm transcended her knowledge that he’s a scumbag. She wanted to believe…needed to believe in something, someone. Just as 40% of the real American Honeys hang on to their belief in another scumbag, groping or no.
Since the governments aren’t mindful to do so, perhaps art will, we can only hope, show the way.
AMERICAN HONEY: Dir/writer: Andrea Arnold. With Sasha Lane, Shia LaBoeuf, Riley Keough. Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan. Production Designer: Kelly McGehee