By: Lana Power
Three days later, and I am still living in Andrea Arnold’s hypotonic world of American Honey. With magnetic and poetic realism, the film exposes the lives and experiences that are historically invisible to the media machine. If represented, the lives of the working class – the homeless, the unapologetic, or the untamable – are typically chewed up and spit out by a classist matrix of social politics. American Honey refuses to diminish these lives to victimization, or to the periphery of our perception, but rather represents a world we have been trying to shield ourselves from. Poverty, domestic abuse, mental illness, homeless queer youth, misogyny, sexual assault, and sex work are all delicately woven into the plot structure in a way that is both exacting and spontaneous. With liberation and restraint, Star (Sasha Lane) refuses to become a victim of poverty, unemployment, and domestic abuse. We watch her naiveté navigate through a coming of age without ever questioning of nature of her decisions. Arnold accomplishes the subjectivity of a historically invisible but well deserving female narrator so scrumptiously well that we realize how hungry we were for it. These contradictions throughout the work force us to engage in a larger social commentary on youth, class, freedom, and social obedience.
I feel like the film is made for people like me, whose stories are always told on someone else's terms, and whose experiences are often reduced to peripheral judgement.
The film starts when Star and Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the charismatic leader of the ‘mag crew,’ a group of vagabond misfits that traveled around selling magazine subscriptions, seduce each other in a Walmart parking lot. An opportunity to leave her suffocating circumstances to follow a refreshing potential leads her into joining the traveling crew. The ‘power seller,’ Jake, is instructed to teach Star how to go door-to-door to sell magazines, ultimately how to sell oneself. It’s a subtle insight about the dynamics of power that these mag crew kids have to creatively conform to, for survival within our matrix of social codes. We see how they keep themselves alive with unwritten social codes and rituals. Out of their circumstances, they’ve all come together to create a world for themselves, one that is too nuanced and complex to be ‘unfortunate.’ From this, we see a rip in the fabric of respectability politics that are encouraged to stick a finger in and rip open.
With pheromones practically jumping through the movie screen, the seduction between Star and Jake continues. With Jake, we quickly see how charisma and magnetism can turn abusive, but Star remains unfazed by his actions. Through intimidation and disappointment, she refuses to surrender either her power or her emotional convictions. At times, the camera stays so intimate with Star that we experience how she plays the ‘game,’ but only on her terms. During a love scene, Star and Jake writhe on the forest floor and as Star moans for Jake to continue, he finishes. Detectable to the keen eye, we saw see Star left ultimately unsatisfied. She is stuck in between between self-ownership and an objective of another’s desire, a place many femme folks can recognize. This contradiction reappears when she does sex work in hopes of gathering the funds to find an abode for her and her lover. Jake’s explosive response to her benevolent decision leaves Star yet again in the place between her agency and Jake’s expectation of ownership. These moments of the film jump out as the fabric of so many unrepresented and seemingly invisible experiences. It’s these moments that I feel like the film is made for people like me, whose stories are always told on someone else's terms, and whose experiences are often reduced to peripheral judgement.
Almost completely street cast, the film reads as a documentary at times, because the chemistry among the mag crew would be entirely unattainable to any group of trained actors. The type of authenticity that comes from the cast of non-performers and anti-actors holds an unprecedented level of authenticity. These endearingly untamable kids don’t give a fuck because they have nothing to give a fuck about. Rather than trivializing their lifestyles, American Honey shows us how to celebrate the creativity that comes from abstaining from our cultural narrative, which can be both dark and light.
Vignettes of impoverished homes, negligent parents, and taken for granted wildness expose unwitnessed angles of American life, and out bubbles insights about the polarized nature of our social order. We live in a society where this type of poverty is a reality, but where we’ve been taught to be afraid of ending up like these kids. The sanctity of middle class America is built on the suppression of spontaneity and impulse, but without the promises of middle class life, these kids have no stake in anxious rigidity or punctuality. Andrea Arnold challenges us not to victimize poverty, but rather see the value it can have as a place of both liberation and restraint, creativity and conformity, hope and despair. It shows us to revel in the truth of contradiction. In American Honey, the power of recklessness, the value of ruthless disobedience, and the creativity of having nothing left to lose reigns supreme.