There’s a moment in Inherent Vice that considers a heroin cartel’s vertically integrated system, musing on how there’d always be a steady customer base “as long as American life was something to be escaped from.” It’s a broadly applicable concept, especially in a cultural time where escape has become a goal in all permutations: from fear, from anxiety, from the realities of poverty, from the weight of living in the world. Escape means freedom, and freedom is still more or less one of the indomitable rights hard-wired into the DNA of this country. Freedom to roam. Freedom to leave a terrible life and start again. Freedom to make the choice to destroy your body if you see fit, because it feels good and pleasure’s the life you’ve chosen. In Andrea Arnold’s sublime film American Honey, freedom is relative, but every once in a while it can feel so damn good that the whole world disappears around it.
American Honey spends the dominant amount of its 163 minutes following Star (Sasha Lane in a remarkable debut performance), a young woman living in what could only be called abject poverty. By day she and her younger siblings attempt to hitchhike, each with a bag packed and waiting for somebody (anybody) to take them away from a mother who isn’t around and a father who, as one early drunken moment suggests, is miles beyond unfit to look after any of them. Robbie Ryan’s photography has a keen eye for subtle details, but it’s especially pronounced in these early scenes, when Star’s dire need for escape is painted in small, lingering glances, at a kitchen overrun with flies or a last gaze through a country-western bar or a hand sliding just a little too far down a spine.
The film is observant above all things, and Arnold finds resonance early and often in watching Lane’s expressive, wanting face as she wanders through life as a kind of voyeur, watching people more well-off as they move on with lives she can’t help but fantasize about. That is, until one day she happens across Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the charismatic centerpiece of a band of stray youths travelling across the country. Jake immediately takes notice of Star, and offers her a proposition: the chance to travel across the country in a packed conversion van, selling magazine subscriptions to naïve people (usually older) for money, and using that money to lead a life of indulgence and, as Star can’t help but see it, freedom. Sure, there’s her life at home to think about, but the moment she watches the rambunctious collective break out into a frantic dance around and atop a K-Mart checkout, to the tune of Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Star is fated to climb into that van and live with the strays.
And so Star’s whisked away into a life of petty crime, con artistry, sexual freedom, casual and prolific substance use/abuse, and a world she never imagined. Arnold’s screenplay (no doubt appended by some ad-libs throughout, given the naturalism of so many of the film’s conversations) treats the van as its own closed ecosystem, with some lengthy passages of the film simply looking around the vehicle at everyone inside, as they sing or plan the next area to canvas or sometimes don’t talk at all. The van is far more than a transport to work, especially when the work isn’t particularly good. It’s a home, but it’s even more than that. It’s a communal space, a sexual hunting ground, a sounding box for ideas, a rolling barroom for loud conversations, a nightclub, a path to more. It’s all the things the kids want and had to find a way to build for themselves. At one point the group passes through Kansas City, and even in a modest metropolis like that one, they can’t help but marvel at the size of the buildings. It’s not just that the van takes them away from whatever bad situation they left; it introduces them to a world that they were never allowed to know exists.
But the van isn’t what interests Arnold most. It’s Star, and how she learns to exist in a world that’s both exhilarating and wildly unfamiliar to her. Lane does exceptional work in a film that demands she stand front and center in nearly every shot. Early on, her movements are guarded, reserved, and tentative. But as the film unfolds, Lane ably captures Star’s maturation into somebody who knows how to survive in the world, in every sense. Even as the film puts her into situations that will likely make audiences squirm with discomfort and dread, she’s not a victim or a woman in peril so much as one more person using what they have to get what they need. And as the charmer who shows her a world where she can (and should) do that, LaBeouf finally shakes off the boyish impressions generated by so many teen movies from ten or more years ago and delivers a confident, vulnerable, career-best turn as a man torn between his above-average knowledge of how to finesse people and the nagging feeling that maybe he’s good enough at this to want more.
To return to the point of the film’s stunning photography, Ryan and Arnold manage to make vivid use of the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio, which will likely frustrate some but adds multitudes to the film as Star passes from town to town to lover to mark. In one moment, the framing allows for Star and Jake’s stoned, reckless dashing through suburban front yards to whip by in a vivid tracking shot. A couple has impulsive sex in an open field, and they fill the frame to the point where nothing else could exist within it, or needs to. A burning flame from an oil field lights an expanse of total darkness. It’s a film of unforgettable images, but one that also finds purpose within them, a film that understands the value of sensation and texture and place no matter where it wanders.
To some, the film’s languid storytelling will seem to be at odds with its constant sonic assault. In a similar manner to Spring Breakers, a film with which this one shares some thematic interests, Arnold drowns Star’s world in a constant barrage of modern music. However, the pounding electronic music of that film is replaced here by a litany of recent pop favorites and trap music. Much of the debate around the film will likely touch on this in some way; in keeping with its characters, American Honey is a film in which a lot of young, primarily white kids flaunt their adoption of whatever one might parse out as “rap culture.” In one sense, it’s true to life, as anybody who’s ever lived near a predominantly white and rural area might likely have observed. In another, American Honey bears witness to a literal kind of ignorance at great length, and perhaps there’s an argument to be made some other time about whether a film can do so without incidental endorsement. Arnold offers no easy answers in this regard.
Yet the film neither judges nor condones at any point, so much as it uses those cultural touchstones to investigate the cycles of exploitation at every level of society that put all those kids in that van to begin with. And, perhaps, that keep them in the van. American Honey’s most trenchant commentary isn’t just about the individual and the nature of freedom, but how those exist within a world that at times even fetishizes exploitation. (It’s a poignant thought when a presidential candidate just celebrated his willingness to stiff laborers during a debate less than 48 hours ago.) The chorus of Carnage and I LOVE MAKONNEN’s “I Like Tuh,” one of the many stops on the film’s lengthy soundtrack, ends up illustrating this point succinctly; the nihilism of “I like to/Make money/And get turnt” accompanies a rowdy celebration in a parking lot, but it’s also a manifesto for the lost souls travelling together. They have nothing, they have nobody except for each other, and so the twin axioms rule their daily lives: get money, and money will keep you fucked up.
Yet even as they’re offered paradise, American Honey finds the schisms. It’s in the way that the organization’s boss Krystal (Riley Keough) eyeballs Star, livid that Jake (her star salesman) and his attentions are starting to wander. It’s in the weekly fistfights mandated within the group, where the two lowest sellers are forced to come to blows under firelight. It’s in the rapid-fire explanations of percentages taken off sales and invisible fees that exist even at the level of a van-operated merchandising hustle. The America that Arnold finds during the film is one that seems to be born from endless fantasies about the liberation of the open, unconquered road, but it’s also one in which the realities of capitalism and financial hardship are always lurking just beneath the next bassline and the next bottle of booze.
After all, in this world, everything is currency. The money they make, the liquor and drugs they try to obtain, the sex they have or withhold. Even beauty and desire become their own means of extortion; one particularly eerie moment in a film that manages a good few comes when Krystal illustrates her dominance by forcing Jake to grease her with suntan lotion while commenting on Star’s struggling sales numbers with all the passive venom of a corporate division head. Somebody’s always getting, which means somebody’s always being had, the film posits. In the film’s rare moments of quiet, the idea is amplified, as the total openness of the highways starts to feel smaller when even those are just the path to the next town and the next hustle.
American Honey is one of the great movies of its year, a film at once seductive in its vision of completely uninhibited youth and ruefully sad in its unwillingness to smooth off the fatalism of its world. This is a place where the only goal is more money and more numbness, and it’s one where if you won’t help somebody else get theirs, there’ll always be another poor kid in another abandoned town who will. In so many words, it’s the America that’s so frequently forgotten about or smugly relegated to a punchline by so much of the country. But yet, even as Arnold’s portrait of vagabond destitution grows more powerful by the scene, this isn’t just a film about struggle and hardship. It’s also about escape, as a fantasy and as a hard-won reality. In its frequently trashy, overindulgent, and cacophonous way, it’s a reminder that freedom, however qualified, still exists. There are still a few corners of the world you can disappear into, if you get out there and really look.