American Honey (2016)

Directed by Andrea Arnold

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There aren’t many adults in American Honey, just a loose hierarchy of children bordering on teenagers and teenagers bordering on nothing but yet full of hope regardless.  Our protagonist into this young traveling circus of magazine salesmen driving across the country is a Texan girl named Star (Sasha Lane).  She joins the group because there’s nothing tying her to the small, miserable town she’s from.  When the white van of what might be spring breakers shows up, led by a man who looks just confident enough to suggest he’s not leading them all to hell, all Star knows is that she wants whatever they have.

And all they have is each other as well as the weed, alcohol and party atmosphere they uphold.  But the group isn’t all about cruising the country and listening to overplayed top 40 hits.  They have a job: to sell those bogus magazine subscriptions you’ve been offered but probably never purchased.  It’s a scam, basically, and they all know it, but they don’t care.  It’s better than whatever the alternatives might be.

The real leader of the group is an intimidating woman named Krystal (Riley Keough) who is the only one that can shut anyone up with a single look.  Despite her stature within this small family, she looks to be no more than a year or two older than any of them.  The one common denominator between these kids is that they have no one who will miss them while they’re gone, and on the surface this seems like a blessing as they sing, scream, dance, smoke and drink their away across the middle of America.

But as we get to know the characters, especially Star, we see that they’re mostly aware of the limbo they’re in.  This lifestyle never feels sustainable.  We follow Star into the organized chaos of this group of people as they sing along to songs by people like Rihanna and E-40.  It comes off as a ritual, more about sending a message amongst themselves than about parading around, celebrating their youth.  But maybe that’s also what it is.  Either way, when Star first meets the group, she observes mostly quietly as they sing along.  Sure she recognizes these songs and perhaps these people, but this collective group and aura is new to her.  This is a family, and it represents all that is good in the world.

But then as Star ingratiates herself into this family, she recognizes its faults and eventually contributes to what we learn is a more conscious construction of that family.  The goal, above all else, is still to make money.  Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the number 2 in the group, and Krystal threaten Star with abandonment if she doesn’t sell enough magazine subscriptions to stick with them.  The point is clear: this group is something to celebrate, but it’s not that far off from the reality she escaped, it’s simply a little louder.

Later we will see Krystal direct the girls, commanding them to dance in front of a group of oilmen, meant to seduce and warm them up so they can get more money.  The dancing and singing isn’t organic to the moment.  It’s a conscious decision, a ploy, to make more money.

Pretty early on into the story, Star sees this reality clearly.  As Jake trains her, showing her how to lie most effectively to con different groups of people, she immediately rebels against him and against the culture she so quickly bought into.  Star doesn’t like to lie, apparently, but she similarly doesn’t like the people they’re lying to.  So it’s not about the people they’re possibly hurting, it’s more about the principle.  This creates a dilemma for Star, but she eventually tosses aside her concerns and keeps on living the way these other castoffs live.  Rather than deciding she’s above it, she jumps right in.  It’s better, I suppose, to be a little wrong together than to be a little right by yourself.

One of the other things keeping Star in the group is her intense attraction to Jake.  He returns her affections, but it’s not hard to see that he might be a little manipulative, perhaps spreading his affections amongst many other girls in the group, Krystal among them.  Krystal tries to hurt Star when she tells her, “you’re not special,” before saying that Jake is definitely sleeping around on her.

I mean, this is a coming of age story, so of course there’s a love interest and a volatile love story, but the best parts of this story are the group dynamics between these kids who might be outlaws in another time and place.  They are from all over the country, and though Star never seems to develop too close of a friendship with anyone outside of Jake, she is attracted to the group as a whole.  Later when we (and she) see the ways in which the image of this family is constructed, Star has to decide if it’s worth sticking with at all.

There are three unique instances in which Star is seen making money for the group. None of them really have to do with the magazines, and all three have to do with men.  In the first instance, Star runs away from Jake and hops into a convertible with three aging cowboys, dressed in the white, slick kind of cowboy clothing you might not expect to find a real cowboy.  Their clothes are pressed and perfect where the icon whose look they’re borrowing from would be weathered, dusty and hardened.

These cowboys, though, are just a few friends setting out to grill some meat and drink a few beers.  When Star insists on drinking a certain hard liquor which they caution her against, they offer to buy a few hundred dollars worth of her magazines if she drinks the worm that rests at the bottom of the bottle of liquor.  She does it, and they pay up, but then Jake arrives with a loaded gun and robs them instead.

In the next instance, Star hitches a ride with an older truck driver who comes off as a temporary, surrogate father figure.  He’s kind and gentle, and when he asks Star what her dreams are, she remarks that no one has ever asked her that before.  He eventually pays for a few subscriptions, but it’s clear he’s paying more for their shared conversation than the magazines.

In the final instance, Star negotiates to get $1,000 from an oil worker in exchange for a night with him.  She understands the ramifications of what she’s doing (prostitution) and goes through with it even with a few hours to think about the decision.  In their scene together, they are lit only by a nearby flame, making it almost too on the nose that she has descended to her lowest level, a place resembling hell.

The message seems to be that this group of friends isn’t perfect, and Star has to give away part of herself to stick with them.  Maybe there’s a thematic connection between prostitutes and salesmen.  What does it mean if most of your interactions have a monetary agenda and does it make life a little more combative than it needs to be?

Each of the scenes in which one character tries to get money from a stranger plays like a match in a boxing movie.  I pictured Jake straining to come up with new lies to justify Star’s increasingly antagonistic behavior in the face of a possible customer like I picture Jake Lamotta ducking hooks and jabs in Raging Bull.

These kids are warriors, and with the amount of work and stress that goes into making sure they have someplace to stay each night, the degree to which they celebrate (and literally fight in some cases) makes a lot more sense.  These are kids who, like starving animals, have to be constantly on guard.  Their senses are heightened, both for pleasure and for fear.  They know that in one instance they may be celebrating but in the next they may again be out of work.

The feeling ultimately created by this movie is one of hope, for a generation of hopeful kids from a generation of adults who know they shouldn’t feel so much hope.  So it’s grounded optimism, perhaps.  The audience is meant to see the faults in the ways of lives of these kids.  From the moment we see them mooning strangers from the van and dancing to Rihanna in a convenience store, we see people who aren’t prepared or yet faced with the harsh realities of life.  But as we get to know them, of course, we see that they do know some of the harsher ways of the world.  The celebration isn’t a denial of pain but just an expression of relief that it’s come and gone.  It’s unclear if there’s a conscious thought in regards to whether such pain will ever come again.  The kids are old enough to have experienced things that could beat them down, but they’re young enough not to realize those things might return.

These are also kids who have been forced to grow up too quickly but still might not have done so.  You want to protect them, but you can already see the ways in which they are headed down a certain path.  Whether it’s in their tattoos or accents or abuses of alcohol, you can see the signs of permanence in their lives.  Maybe the real question is when do you go from a kid to an adult?

Star is 18, but she wears the tattoo on her thigh like she’s had it for years.  Who knows how old Jake is, but his rat tail is more of a lion’s mane, and he’s probably grown it out for close to a decade.  We see signs of how these kids have lived and how they will live.  Joining this group of salesmen, then, isn’t quite the escape Star may have envisioned because she and they bring their lives with them wherever they go.

This is illustrated most clearly in a scene in which Star stumbles upon a house of three or so children, intending to try and sell them subscriptions.  What she finds are uncared for children, reminding her of the ones she left behind to join this group of people.  Star decides to run to the local market and buy milk, bananas, bread, etc. for the kids to eat.  It’s a nice gesture, but these kids are unprepared for the paths they’ll have to take.  Their mom, we later see, is a junkie who comes out to the couch completely unaware of Star, just to pass out next to a needle.  It’s a deeply troubling image, but there’s nothing more Star can do.

The kids, however, are cheerful and optimistic, like most kids their age.  One girl sings for Star (a song by The Dead Kennedys, oddly enough, suggesting she’s definitely exposed to things she might not be emotionally ready to handle), and another walks around in a halloween costume.  These kids think everything is okay, but Star can see that it’s not.  And it’s not hard to see that these young children are symbolic of Star and her gang of salesmen.  They sing and dance and smoke and drink and celebrate the moment, acting and possibly even believing that life can be like this forever.  But there’s something coming, whether that’s simply adulthood or the law or something from within.  This can’t go on forever.  In the end we’re left with an image of Star leaving the group as they sing and dance around a campfire.  She wades into a lake and sinks under the surface, and for a moment you think she might not come back up (which would have played like an ending equally as abstract as that of Chance walking on water at the end of 1979’s Being There).  But she does emerge, with a sudden burst of feeling, and this suggests that she’s been reborn in some way.  We don’t know what will happen or where Star will go if she leaves the group.  Maybe she won’t leave the group.  The point is that she has grown up a little.  This movie is a collection of experiences that push and pull at Star’s core, and there is no clear indication that she will go one way or another.  All we know is that she’s a little wiser than she was at the beginning of the story.

 

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