Arnold: American Honey (2016)
One of the most astonishing depictions of roadside America that I have seen in some time, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey started its life as Mag Crew, a film about the growing numbers of American teenagers who seek employment as magazines salespeople, going on the road for months at a time to eke out a subsistence wage that barely keeps them afloat. As it evolved into American Honey, Arnold scoured parties, parking lots and petrol stations for a largely non-professional cast – with a few major exceptions – to try and tell this story, which in its final version takes place through the eyes of Star, a drifter played by newcomer Sasha Lane. Since American Honey isn’t the kind of film where “backstories” are really explored in any detail, it suffices to say that Star leaves a fairly dire situation in her adopted town of Muskogee, Oklahoma after she’s recruited for a travelling magazine crew by Jake, a charismatic salesman played by Shia LaBoeuf, in one of his most winning and authentic performances. For the most part, the remainder of the film follows Star, Jake and the rest of the crew as they scramble to make it on the poverty line, always trying to keep one step ahead of things while trying not to think too far ahead either. Suffused with a dodging, weaving, dancing rhythm in keeping with their fugitive lifestyles, it’s a film in which youth and precarity are fused, and in which precarity appears first and foremost as a condition and affliction of American youth, since there are virtually no adults in the film who don’t appear in an admonitory or exploitative role.
As virtually every critic – regardless of their final opinion – has noted, the subsequent journey is extremely long, clocking in at close to three hours but feeling much longer due to the lack of any traditional narrative structure or suspense. While I understood some of the arguments for a shortened version, I thought that the length was needed to capture the extent and ambit of the road, and critical to Arnold’s increasingly cosmic register, as evinced in her signature soaring shots that sweep up from the road to the sky and back again, creating sudden and fluid changes of scale as if to capture some massive collective impetus and momentum that nevertheless remains too diffuse and unfocused to ever congeal into any single act or event either. As might be expected from a road film, that approach is particularly acute in and around sex scenes, imbuing the road with an incredibly sensuous quality but also investing every sexual encounter with the openness and precarity of the road as well, making for a film in which sexual vulnerability is cherished with an almost unbearable erotic acuity. Among other things, that means that the relationship between Star and Jake never congeals or settles – more on that in a bit – and never really feels different in kind from Star’s love for all the bugs, insects and other tiny creatures that she encounters over the course of her travel, all of which create a sense of airiness, vast possibilities and permeabilities, that breaks down human and non-human affections and attachments into something more open and emergent.
In the process, Arnold takes us through a version of the United States we rarely see on screen, as the film plots a rough trajectory that runs from Muskogee to Kansas City to Des Plaines, but plays largely as an endless array of Big-box shopping centres and roadside venues that are devoid of even the most residual vestiges of kitsch Americana. At its very strongest, American Honey manages to somehow condense the vastness of all that connective tissue into vignettes that never close or cordon off the sense of scale and openness that makes it connective tissue in the first place. In one of my favourites, Star breaks away from a brief argument with Jake only to find herself running across the road in front of a Mercedes-Benz full of what appear to be rich Texans clad head to toe in starched white suits. In one of the spontaneous gestures that define the film as a whole, Star jumps in the car and the Texans take her to their house, in the most sustained encounter with adults (and with white privilege) across the entire film. As they prepare the barbecue and encourage Star to jump in the pool – in what appears to be a family home – a strange, emergent atmosphere settles in which the Texans’ real intention could be anything from rape and murder to convivial conversation. It’s a wonderful turn, then, when Jake arrives, “saving” Star from a fate we never learn and allowing all the possibilities and implications of that one vignette to percolate out across the rest of the action, until it almost feels like an independent film in itself.
Key to that ambient, easygoing quality is the use of music, since, as so many critics have also noted, there is music playing in nearly every scene. In many ways, the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music simply doesn’t make sense in a post-Spotify world, and American Honey inhabits that world more completely than any other I’ve seen, as listening to music and soundtracking one’s life become utterly indistinguishable. In fact, it doesn’t even make sense to that say that the crew “listen” to music – instead, they participate in it as it drifts in and out of their lives, until it feels as if they are simply overhearing their own mentalese as much as listening to anything that is external to their consciousness. Hip-hop is particularly prominent, and seems to be the genre that most encourages this participation, as well as the genre that speaks most eloquently to this collapse of musical and non-musical (or diegetic and non-diegetic spaces). As a result, hip-hop serves several purposes – it’s used as a wind-down, a navigation device, a motivational chant before sales, a bonding session for new members – as well as speaking to a vast number of characters. Once upon a time, hip-hop was an African-American genre, but it feels more and more like a genre that speaks to anyone who is not white – or for whom a certain kind of whiteness remains an impossibility – and that’s certainly the case here, not least because hip-hop is so conducive to car travel, and so much of Arnold’s film takes place in cars or car-centric spaces. Above and beyond any specific content, then, the sound and shape of hip-hop feels like a lexicon of both resistance and resilience across the course of American Honey, seeping in and out of the action quite subliminally, but also stopping and starting suddenly without appearing to take anyone out of the moment either.
Yet that lack of any real distinction between musical and non-musical experiences is just one facet of the way in which Arnold continually displaces the centre and focus of her film. Offering Middle America as the continually decentred centre of a road trip that grows more diffuse as it proceeds, the film delights in side-trips and detours that you might be tempted to call tangential if the main trip had any real fixed direction and focus. Instead, the trip – and film – appear to evolve day by day, according to their own rhythm, making for an experience that genuinely feels made up as it goes, a cinematic memoir or diary as much as a fictional feature. Whereas 60s road warriors often felt as if they were moving to keep moving, Sasha, Jake and the rest of the crew are simply moving because they can, in some primal and inalienable affirmation of autonomy even in the midst of socioeconomic deprivation. At times, I found myself recalling Sherman’s March or David Holzman’s Diary, or even a more buoyant Larry Clark, but none of those quite do justice to the idiosyncrasy of Arnold’s project, which often feels as if a documentary account of the filming process has been converged with the film itself. In that sense, the closest analogy I can think of is probably the road trip sequence in Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, although the fatalism and optimism is much more accentuated in this case, as evinced in the various versions of “Dream Baby Dream” – Bruce Springsteen’s bizarre Suicide cover – that circulate throughout Arnold’s mise-en-scenes.
At the same time, there is a simple yet critical difference from The Brown Bunny and most other films that American Honey might seem to recall – the virtual absence of anything resembling private space or private property. In the opening scenes of the film, there’s inevitably something awkward and even uncanny about Star and Jake going door-to-door to sell subscriptions. After all, this is a new experience for Star, especially because she happens to start in a fairly rich and forbidding series of neighborhoods. It’s only a matter of time, however, before all thresholds and front doors start to feel strange, and from there all houses, apartments and even rooms, as Arnold conjures up a vision of America in which private space is utterly alien, as are all the carefully manicured “public” spaces of urban and suburban middle-class life that are built up to service private property. In other words, the characters are alienated from precisely the private and public spaces usually occupied or adorned by the magazines that they’re selling – spaces that can afford to invest in such a redundant medium as a sign of conspicuous consumption and performative leisure. Selling redundant media to a demographic that can afford to celebrate their redundancy, it’s no surprise that the crew often feel more like grifters or gleaners than salespeople, right down to their ability to pitch themselves so that their prospective clients feel that they are doing them an act of charity by inviting them into their private spaces in the first place. Even or especially when they remain on the doorstep, however, it feels as if what Star and Jake are selling is the fantasy of private property, as much through the way they perform their own precarity as through the magazines themselves, until the crew comes to feel like they are embodying the very conditions upon which private property can depend in the first place.
In that sense, American Honey really made me realise how much the assumption of private space gives most films their sense of teleology and direction. Similarly, it’s a reminder that a certain modicum of private property is needed for most filmic relationships to congeal and settle (it’s no coincidence, after all, that most romantic comedies are set against – and normalise – preposterously privileged architecture and décor). In one review I read, the critic compared the mutability of Star and Jake’s relationship to that between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy’s characters in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, but I tend to think it’s the exact opposite. While Jessie (Hawke) and Celine (Delphy) both possess an upper middle-class background that permits them a certain amount of romantic play, private property – let alone a middle-class life – is too foreclosed for Star and Jake to ever envisage their connection settling or stabilising into anything recognisable as a relationship. Less centred on play than in a restless and inventive promiscuity, their sexual and romantic encounters are no less invested in the future than those of Jessie and Celine, but in the absence of a future contoured by home rental (let alone home ownership), the most they can do is converge their moments of intimacy with the forward momentum of the road, giving all their encounters a traumatically erotic fragility and awareness of contingency.
During these scenes, as across the film generally, Arnold displays a real knack for seeking out all those spaces that are neither private nor important enough to private property owners to be branded as “public” either. For the most part, these play as greater and more expansive extrapolations of the endless car parks that define roadside America, culminating with a strange diffuse space around an unnamed oil field and, finally, a surreal encounter with a bear on the cusp of the Great Plains. That’s a brave choice – even an auteurist choice – since they’re all spaces that, by their very nature, are not especially spectacular, but that are invested with the metonymic momentum of the road, a visceral and abiding sense of all the spaces that flow in and out of them, and it’s that sense that Arnold sets out to evoke over the course of the film. At fugitive moments, that feels like freedom, especially in and around music, and one of the great scenes of the film is the final sequence in which Star, Jake and the rest of the bus sing the title song by Lady Antebellum. Yet part of the beauty of this scene is that it feels entirely made for the people performing it – there is a self-sufficiency about it that defies anyone who is not actually living at that level of precarity to really commune with and participate in it. And that tact and deference is also American Honey’s final note – determined to both educate people outside the precariat and encourages the participation of people within the precariat, it’s a message film that refuses to ever completely subsume its message into atmosphere, or to extricate Arnold’s own collaboration and participation with her subjects from the experience.
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