American Honey (2016)
Written & Directed by Andrea Arnold
Star lives in the sunburnt concrete dregs of Oklahoma, taking care of two children (not her own) while seeking something more from her life. She crosses paths with a crew of teenagers selling magazines door to door across the south and midwest and decides to join them. It’s not the job opportunity that lures Star rather her immediate attraction to Jake, one of the young men in the group. Star eventually meets Krystal, the slightly older woman in charge of the sales group. She pairs Star with Jake to learn the trade, and this affords the two an opportunity to develop their relationship further. However, Star finds this lifestyle increasingly empty and seeks another new path.
I discovered Andrea Arnold through her 2009 film Fish Tank which was similar to American Honey. They both follow very fiercely independent female characters who have to navigate the transition from childhood to being adults. Star, however, has a much more mystic quality about her that doesn’t become entirely relevant until the conclusion of the film. She doesn’t have much of her backstory revealed but that works because she seems to exist outside of the events and people of her past. Star is continually pushing forward, exploring the world and always finding people to communicate with.
American Honey explores Star just as much as it looks at flyover country America. When we first meet Star, she is dumpster diving with two younger kids. Her relationship to them is never made explicit, but we can infer she just came into their lives at some point and never left. She views their survival as necessary enough to weather the sexual abuse of their father and the complete abandonment of their mother. Later in the film, Star comes across a home where the mother has slid into the oblivion of meth and her three children fend for themselves from day to day. Arnold isn’t trying to make any profound sweeping message about the current state of America; instead, she wants to observe it and present this view we don’t often see in the cinema.
America in this movie is a duality of blasted out cement parking lots of rolling plains of nature. The magazine crew typically lives out of extended stay motels, crammed into rooms and sharing beds with four other people. They finally get a break from this when they stay in a farmhouse while shilling periodicals to workers in the oil fields. You can hear all the sellers exclaim how happy they are to be staying in a place with a kitchen and a front yard. When they eventually have to leave one of them, off-screen remarks how they’ll miss the farmhouse. There is another scene where Star is waking through a field and suddenly finds her shoes covered in blood, looking across the plain she spots a slaughterhouse and realizes she’s gone through the run-off. Again we see this juxtaposition of civilized interference into the natural realm.
Viewers could become frustrated with the aimless quality of American Honey, and I can understand that. However, this wanderlust and lack of a stringent series of plot beats are what makes the film so hypnotic. We feel that lack of forward momentum that these young people are experiencing, however, there is energy exploding all over the screen just without any target in mind. Star is asked by a fatherly truck driver at one point what her dream is and she replies that no one has ever asked her that question. Later she inquires the same of Jake, and he responds as she did. No one has sought out what these young people want, they were born into a system built by other people and then expected to follow it. We can see in our economy and social structures how the world of 30-40 years ago is not what young people today have on their plate. The final scene of American Honey is a baptism of sorts, Star washing clean of all expectation and possibly beginning a new journey of her own making.