For years I awaited English iconoclast Andrea Arnold’s fourth feature, Mag Crew. It was to be her ‘first film set in the United States’ (apparently a high-water mark for any non-American filmmaker), and would be a road-tripping odyssey about a young woman who runs with a crew of youths peddling magazine subscriptions across the Midwest. It would feature performance artist Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough surrounded by largely untested non-professionals, and its sprawling soundtrack would careen from Ciara to Springsteen. By the time the film premiered at Cannes this year, all seemed as promised — only the picture was now known as American Honey. This left me uneasy for reasons then unclear. Having now seen the film, I can say with some clarity that this retitling is both fitting and an act of casual self-sabotage.
Mag Crew suggests an ensemble, and writer-director Arnold — who has a knack for plucking charismatic amateurs from train stations and beaches — is indeed fascinated by the ragtag band of poor, mostly white kids she has somehow managed to wrangle from all corners of the Union. By way of fleeting but lovingly captured moments in and around minivans and motels, these bit players are given texture and individuality, saving them from being an amorphous mass of extras chanting along to rap and engaging in general antics. But Arnold skimps on their mag-selling adventures, and we only ever see protagonist Star (commanding newcomer Sasha Lane) and her hustling love interest Jake (LaBeouf, in charming rascal mode) in action on door stoops.
Frankly, whoever comes expecting a mosaic of backstories and character arcs will be left wanting because American Honey is at heart a portrait of Star, the biracial, dreadlocked teen we meet in the very first frame, dumpster diving in order to feed her brother and sister to whom she may as well be mom. Throw in the meth-head mother who abandoned her and the lowlife father who gropes her and you have a lost childhood and a myopic future. So when Star locks eyes with Jake as he dances to the now-dated Calvin Harris-Rihanna anthem “We Found Love” on a Kmart service counter, the promise of escape is as urgent as Harris’ synths. Star dumps her siblings on their birth mother and bails.
A feral romance is born. It’s the film’s clearest dramatic construct and the primary engine of conflict, pitching Star against the crew’s no-nonsense manager-matriarch, Crystal (Keough), who early in the film makes note of their both being Texas gals–“real American honeys,” as Crystal puts it. It’s a reference to the Lady Antebellum song that gives the film its final title, which features a lyric that perfectly encapsulates Star: “Steady as a preacher, free as a weed.” But this dubious kinship dies when Jake’s standing as Crystal’s top-earner suffers on account of his infatuation with Star, whose reckless hunger for experience and a lucrative sale frequently lands her in one-on-one (and sometimes one-on-three) scenarios with older men, some of the film’s tenser moments as Arnold toys with expectations of predatory masculinity. Star is clearly testing the limits of trust and openness and of her own power (sexual and otherwise), betting heavily on intuition but also on the integrity of strangers. This wilful vulnerability triggers Jake’s instinct to both protect and possess her, and their inevitable sex practically assaults the camera. But Jake is not only a selfish lover but a corporate minion representing Star’s glass ceiling, co-opting her earnings while fanning her desire for betterment. Like the ill-fated trysts embarked upon by most of Arnold’s protagonists — like teenage Mia and her affair with her mother’s married lover in Fish Tank — it’s a toxic route to self affirmation.
Fish Tank, Arnold’s second feature collaboration with ace cinematographer Robbie Ryan, was the duo’s first dalliance with the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio, an approach hailed for its evocation of socioeconomic imprisonment, as well as its ability to find beauty in the grimness of down-and-out England. In that film, the camera hovers and tracks, its focus sensually shallow. Transported to the American heartland, the Arnold-Ryan eye finds itself overwhelmed by extremes, floating between cramped flats and manicured houses; from leafy suburban streets to sparse oilfields. And something about the boxy framing and the moony cutaway shots of landscapes and lonely insects feels Instagram-friendly, which may play into ideas that the film is in some way ‘generation-defining.’ But I doubt Arnold intends on defining millennials, or class dynamics, or the characteristics of honey, or even her own characters for that matter. Her defining modus operandi is to let people and places define themselves.
It’s understandable why a film with ‘America’ in its title might lead one to expect some sort of commentary on, say, gender roles and ideals in certain parts of the United States. Perhaps only an unsullied outsider could truly explore the disconcerting social and economic contradictions that exist within this leader of nations, but Arnold — as always — is an impassioned, somewhat apolitical observer, a closet romantic who is more concerned with how individuals weather adversity than she is with exposing the mechanics of adversarial systems. Still, I can’t help but wonder: for a filmmaker from a working class background, at what point does an inherent affinity for the disadvantaged and the ostracised veer into exploitation? Does this happen the moment she traverses foreign soil, invoking but not overtly grappling with the potential false promise the ‘American Dream’ is to a demographic of young men and women? American Honey certainly risks being a guided tour of the land of Walmart and bumper sticker religion, exoticising the overfamiliar as backdrop for what is, above all, a coming-of-age story. Yet I would argue that this approach, problematic as it is, keeps the film from being a third-party polemic replete with hot-takes, denouncing without offering solutions (think Andrew Dominik’s financial crisis diatribe Killing Them Softly.) Arnold is right to embrace her position as a curious interloper, one whose impression of the midwest is based on solo road trips, not a Kansas upbringing.
American Honey can’t help being an unwieldy creation. A road movie of nearly three hours was always going to push this filmmaker’s oppressively intimate style to near boiling point, and it certainly overheats (and overreaches) in ways that still feel in keeping with the hubris and volatility of youth. Ironically, it’s the authenticity and naturalism offered by Sasha Lane and her stellar fellow first-timers that keeps the film in the pot. Whether or not these performers are truly playing versions of themselves, they define ‘America’ in a way that no single shot or scripted line could ever hope to, providing a necessary counterbalance to Arnold’s heavily symbolist outsider eye. The success of American Honey hangs on one’s appreciation of this very tension as well as — crucially — the realisation that it’s primarily a sketch of one woman’s burgeoning consciousness, a single-minded ambition I suspect Andrea Arnold is quite content with, in accordance with Lady Antebellum’s line that “Tryin’ to be everything can make you lose your mind.”
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