From a foreigner’s perspective, there are certain things that have always struck me as quintessentially American. Rock & roll…the open highway…the refusal to let the life you were born into be the one you die out of. These things may seem cliché, but bring them up to anyone in any small American town and you’ll see that flicker of recognition in their eyes.
Think it matters that the rock & roll has been commercialized, the open highway leads to more of the same, and that most people die in the life they were born into? Of course not.
So what’s more important to focus on in an American film? The quintessential promise? Or the disappointing truth?
One could say that the titular “American Honey” in the film is Star (Sasha Lane). She is a girl who is both old enough and too young to be living the life that she is. When we meet her, she is dumpster diving behind a K-Mart with two small children in tow that aren’t even hers.
When she goes inside, she notices a group of late teen/early twenties kids laughing, singing, dancing, and carrying on. None of them look like they are especially well-off (they’re are partying in a K-Mart after all), but they seem…free.
Back outside, one of them named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) approaches her and suggests she joins them. He wants her to come on the road with them and perhaps make herself a bit of coin doing-so. He introduces her to the group’s leader, Krystal (Riley Keough), who offers her a place in the van.
Officially, the group makes their bank by selling magazines. Unofficially, they’re all looking to hustle cash in any way they can. It might mean smooth talking, it might mean fast fingers, it sometimes involves favours and friendly wagers. Money earned goes up to Krystal, who takes her cut and gauges how her minions are doing.
Day after day, Krystal and the group of drifters hit town after town across middle America and poke through the figurative couch cushions in search of loose cash. Day after day, Star and Jake grow closer and closer, despite differing approaches to their hustle. Day after day, Krystal grows increasingly wary of her new young earner.
It doesn’t sound like such a great situation, does it? Makes you wonder how much worse the alternative they’re running from is.
Director Andrea Arnold does an amazing job of making this film feel both vast and claustrophobic at the same time.
In scene after scene, we look out the windows of this van and see America stretching out in all directions. It seems vast, endless, and intimidating. The zip codes change but the sights remain the same. How is one supposed to make their mark? Arnold’s lens knows how to look at the country and suggest possibilities. It paints ordinary things in extraordinary light to show us how these kids might see them, and might hustle that much harder to get even a small piece of them.
At the same time, Arnold knows how to use a square crop to suggest the claustrophobia of the situations she puts Star into. Sometimes it’s the peril of trying to hustle three rich Texans, sometimes the bullying that comes from Krystal asserting herself as Queen Bee, or sometimes just the close quarters of that van. Often the walls seem to be closing in around our hero, and Arnold’s 1.33:1 frame goes a long way in underlining that.
Expansive and suffocating at the same time. Ain’t that America?
The sort of place where parents name their children “Star” and “Krystal” hoping that they will grow to be people as bright and magnetic as the monikers suggest. It’s a place where people can turn a charitable act into a backhanded hustle and chalk it up to just trying to get by.
The challenge of the film is the way it sits us in the backseat for a road trip we don’t want to take. These characters play silly songs way too loud. They talk shit about everything and everyone, constantly putting themselves into precarious situations. In short – it makes us take a journey we don’t want to take with people we don’t really like…something anyone who travels tries to avoid.
That’s the thing though – by avoiding such situations, and keeping ourselves comfortable, we remain in a bubble, never getting an understanding for how the hurdles others have to clear in life.
A wise man once said that film is a machine that generates empathy. It’s the empathy of AMERICAN HONEY that sticks with you. On any given day, in any given town in North America, you could handily walk past a Star, a Jake, or a Krystal in the parking lot of any shop or motel. For a fleeting moment, you might even interact with them before trying to get on with your life. Odds are, after that fleeting moment, you might never think about them again: not how they got there, not where they’re going next. What we come to realize is that we should.
Every one of them got there – “there” in this case being somewhere sketchy and without promise – because it was infinitely better than where they came from. What does that say about where they came from? What did they walk away from that was so shitty, that make life hustling strangers in middle America while riding in a jam-packed van seem appealing? The math of that equation should make us want to treat them better. It should make us be more charitable than the status quo, which is not to make eye-contact and walk by a little faster.
Maybe after this film we’ll slow our step, look at kids like these a bit differently, and offer a little something of ourselves.