Some films are typically associated with a particular season or geography when that filmmaker is most concerned with making it more than a setting or something in the background, but ultimately its own character. Rather than making it anonymous and banal, you can feel the summer joy or winter moodiness. The weather can even affect the themes or a character mentality like the heatwave in Do the Right Thing or the blizzard in The Shining, but a more contemporary example is Andrea Arnold’s 2016 road trip odyssey, American Honey.
Arnold’s alternative is in the sound design and oriented details, the consistent insects and animals lingering, or the practical humming that seeps out of the sunlight. This communication of something that you can’t even see never grows tired, instead it acts as a contradiction. Heat often symbolizes anger or tension, but there is never a legitimate conflict for the crew in the film – just a battle within themselves. Star primarily, as she’s exploring America and all the walks of life it has to offer.
Arnold, much like other filmmakers that rose to prominence around the same time she did such as Sean Baker and the Safdie Brothers, tell stories about those looked down upon or unrecognized by others. Always withholding from any judgment or discrimination, however, acting as if we are peeping through a hole into another community rarely explored.
In American Honey, we are passengers to the life of Star (Sasha Lane, who was cast when found partying on the beach during spring break), who falls a victim to an abusive relationship scavenging dumpsters for anything edible. When she locks eyes with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in Walmart, while “We Found Love” by Rihanna is blasting, they both see opportunity in each other. Her chance to escape and find redemption in him while he happens to be seeking a new employee that fits right in with his mag crew, along with a proper set of morals. Star abandons her relationship and joins Jake in a new life where she then meets Krystal (Riley Keough) who is the top dog of the group. The mag crew itself (a traveling group of teenagers who sell magazines to those willing to support them, come from all walks of life with a poverty lifestyle to bind them all together) coasts by van to the various individuals and class structures.
The true allure stems from a lack of conflict. Andrea Arnold is never concerned about the tension that comes from something so unsubstantial, instead of behaving as though she is coming along for the ride at the same speed as the audience (despite this being based on a true story, so its not like Arnold expects us to know anything before seeing the film based on actual events).
Comparisons can be drawn everywhere to the likes of Terrence Malik to Harmony Korine – Arnold, along with editor Joe Bini, created a kind of world with the coexistence of different class groups, such as the rich cowboys and the middle-class oil workers who take Star out on a date. They are all under the umbrella of America, presented with a kind of sympathy that may not have come about with another perspective like Star’s.
Everyone we meet in American Honey is trying to achieve – or has already achieved – the American dream, an idea of success either in traditional or nontraditional methods to sustain happiness and wealth. To some extent, we all have our means of coping with what we are dealt with before any endeavors are in place. The prospect of making money is brought up several times, though the inner workings of the business operation aren’t explored. Krystal has control over everyone because they don’t have control over themselves, it’s never the mag crew that gives them security but the idea of fulfilling a dream with the money they make. Everyone has a dream and that’s easy to forget sometimes, what makes America so contradictory is that we are built on the idea of equality and freedom, yet American Honey empathizes that America has many different meanings to many different people.
Fortunately enough, Arnold is allowed to explore this with the nearly three-hour runtime. Even though the runtime is never “felt” – intentional or not – as it would be in a more meditative road movie, like if it were directed by someone like Wim Wenders. It’s intricately paced to give a feeling that Star’s psyche is even better fleshed out, given that the story is from her point of view. Arnold chooses to pace out these events as if we were experiencing it with her. Even though American Honey can be chalked up to Star meeting an assortment of people in an expedition with questionable morals, it never grows tired. It’s all in the repetition of the structure and the peculiarities of the ordinary people Star comes across.
Arnold takes advantage of the downtime to focus on mental banalities of the background that has a whole story of its own. She adds meaning, specifically talking about the animals that Star pays close attention to throughout the film, which may be an interesting stylistic detail textually but adds another meaning to the class system subtextually. When considering the fly she helps out of the Cowboys’ pool, the horses we see being taken off to be slaughtered, or the turtle in the end being let into the lake, these are all living creatures Star has immense sympathy for. The meaning ranges from blunt to complex, yet never without reason, and Arnold purposefully putting the movie on pause to take in these otherwise beautiful locations with unsavory circumstances. The two categories of animals we see are those free to roam about and those trapped unsure of their fate.
Although never explicitly stated outright from Andrea Arnold and meanings vary to whom you ask, the animals who are never caged in could be representative of the mag crew, never tethered to one home or one stable relationship. Contrasted with the animals who are pinned down to somewhere they consider safe and harmless, such as the wealthy, middle-class mother and daughter who seem to have everything, but are unhappy and tense.
Though there’s a real irresistible presence that Sasha Lane brings to American Honey, it is Shia LaBeouf as the alpha male, self-assuring Jake that feels perfectly cast and right at home here. The narrative of LaBeouf’s career leading to this point is just as interesting as Jake is in relation to the movie and how he is humanized in an otherwise unglamorous role. In a decision of near-perfect casting by Andrea Arnold as well as the casting directors, Lucy Pardee and Jennifer Venditti, Labeouf’s off-screen provocative antics make him all the more ironic of a choice for Jake. Although he is the only professional actor surrounded by a group of nonprofessionals, his character seemingly blends in with the rest of the mag crew, rejecting any attention that may be brought to him in this challenging of a role. His controversial persona might have actually helped him feel less recognized, Jake is so self-serious with the business and emotionally intense in a simple but longing home to settle in is what is expected now from what Shia Labeouf has us expecting from him. LaBeouf is a legitimate surprise with how good he is in the film, despite his image constantly surprising everyone. With someone so concerned with subverting celebrity culture, it is welcome when he takes a role he is then able to shine despite any expectations set by himself.
It’s difficult to see American Honey ever feeling dated regardless of the modernization in the stylistic approach. The soundtrack ranges from Lady Antebellum and OG Maco to Carnage and ILOVEMAKONNEN, though it never seems like the kind of pop music that will instantly date the film. The soundtrack seems to fit right in with the mag crews’ taste, and it never tells you how to feel about a scene with overt lyrics rather acting as an added layer that makes complete sense. Just like the soundtrack, the film itself is never gonna feel of a certain moment.
The word “American” gets thrown in front of a lot of titles and it feels particularly apt here, Andrea Arnold understands (or at least tries to) America when she is not even from here. Star finally learns to be independent without Jake by the end, symbolized by a memorable cleansing. We can all learn from letting go from those that teach us best.