Image: a still from the movie American Honey. Image Source.
American Honey is a film that tells the stories no one else wants to tell. A gang of kids in a van travelling across America, making cash selling magazines. A family that scavenges out of dumpsters for food but can still afford beer. A mother who would rather be line dancing than looking after her kids. A girl named Star from Oklahoma who wants to see America, even if America doesn’t see her. But for the audience, the women of the film shine the brightest. They chase wealth because it is the one thing that will make them equal. The money will set them free.
Most of the cast were not professional actors but were scouted in skate parks and Wal-Mart car parks by director Andrea Arnold. The money from the film changed their lives in reality, too. Arnold found Sasha Lane, the mesmerising 19-year-old actress who plays Star, on a beach in Florida during spring break. When Arnold offered her an audition, Lane didn’t know whether she was being set up for a joke or to star in a porno. “I can relate to [Arnold] but at the same I was all: ‘I really hope you don’t fuck me over, I’m really trying to see you as a human, don’t fuck with me,’” Lane explained in an interview. Thankfully, she took Arnold up on the offer, and brought together all the disparate ideas of the film through her visceral performance.
To outsiders Star is unpredictable, but you get the sense that she knows what she wants. She is seduced by Shia LaBeouf’s character, Jake, into joining the magazine crew, but lurking behind his charming smile is the promise of something else. Flashes of her home life convey her need to escape by any means possible, and Jake offers her the world. But his world is selling, and Star learns the hard way. Arnold is British, and the film is her interpretation of the American Dream. “These kids are supposedly selling magazines,” she said. “but really they are selling themselves. That feels very American.” There is even a heart-wrenching scene where Star accepts $1000 to spend the night with a worker on the oil fields that bluntly emphasises this point. But first the oil worker offered Star $500 and she asked for more. Arnold doesn’t judge or moralise, she simply tells the story of a girl who has to make tough choices. Ultimately, Star’s romance with Jake is less important to her than the freedom she craves.
Lane is supported by Riley Keough as Crystal, the manager of their magazine scheme. Crystal is tough and materialistic, but somehow Arnold allows the audience to empathise with her. When the two women meet and Sasha tells Crystal she’s from Oklahoma, Crystal marks that they are both ‘American honeys’, a line from a Lady Antebellum song. Steady as a preacher/Free as a weed/Couldn’t wait to get goin’/But wasn’t quite ready to leave,’ the song echoes towards the end of the film. Crystal asserts her dominance over Star but she also respects her. As long as she can sell, she can stay. The other girls in the crew have their reasons for being there, and they hold their own too. They are lightly sketched, but with detail enough that they seem real. They matter.
The music in the film reflects the contradictions within it. A mix between hardcore trap and country pop, the soundtrack draws your attention to the two Americas that exist and that Star is trying to bridge. Star has dreads and tattoos, but she still wants the American dream of a house and a family. The kids get high and swig vodka from the bottle in the van as they drive through the Bible Belt. There is something in the egalitarian way the kids relate to each other through music that makes you believe that, maybe, this generation has learnt the lessons of their predecessors. They know the only thing that separates them from the rich families in the houses they try to sell magazines to is pure luck. If rappers can get rich from hustling, they can too. even the girls.
‘American Honey’ is a road trip movie without a destination. A little ‘Thelma and Louise’ but without a final conclusion, it flirts with the dangers of being female in a world that can take advantage of a girl on the road. Although Arnold could have easily written Star as a victim, she lets Star make her own choices despite the circumstances. In fact, many of the strangers Star meets help her by buying a magazine subscription. She isn’t lost, just unsure of how to get where she wants to go. Nevertheless, I was visibly tense whenever Star was alone with a man in the film; I wanted to protect her. I guess the point is she doesn’t need protecting.