American Honey is bittersweet. Mostly bitter. In fact, there is nothing romantic about a band of social refuse, made up of lost and abandoned teens, fabricate identities as young hopefuls to tell stories about college scholarships in order to sell magazines door to door. But this scrappy road-trip film, very much resembling Kerouac’s On the Road, inevitably celebrates a sense of youthful restlessness with its dynamic EDM-and-Hip-hop-fused soundtrack. And Andrea Arnold, a British filmmaker who has now earned a reputation for her acute social commentaries through such films like Fish Tank, now probes into class divisions and social indifference in America. What is made seen is the forgotten, and what we see this time, we definitely won’t forget. (PS: 4.5/5)
Review by FF2 Intern Peier Tracy Shen
“Are we invisible?” "Star" (Sasha Lane), a young woman with wild eyes, yells after a passing car. She and two of her younger siblings, exhausted after dumpster diving near a desolate strip mall, fail to hitch a ride. But a romantic connection is soon made after she locks eyes with a charismatic van driver, "Jake" (Shia LaBeouf). Their flirtations lead to a job offer for Star to travel across the country to sell magazines. And Star, hopeless and sexually harassed at home, has to get out.
Then the episodic travelogue takes off, offering slices of life instead of a complete narrative. Even the love story between Jake and Star, punctuated by Ms. Lane and Mr. LaBeouf’s refreshing performances, still appears to lose its focus at times. What really interests Ms. Arnold is the dialectic between a collective of seedy, chaotic, and despondent youth and an otherwise orderly adult world that enforces rules and advertises possibilities for the American Dream.
The white van, which carries its reckless teenage slaves from one town to another, serves as the precise medium to pinpoint such disjunction between the society these rootless teens create and that of the reality. Inside the van, teenagers smoke, drink, perform wild acts, and blast loud music. They are invisible, so they are free. And there’s no one to stop them. However, Ms. Arnold promptly cuts to the exterior, always marked by depressing signs of capitalistic developments like highways, cargo trains, and fancy houses, in order to remind us that their seemingly turbulent freedom as social rejects is also limited.
The director certainly has this paradox in mind when it comes to the visuals. Contained within Ms. Arnold’s little boxy frames, there is freedom. The handheld camera that moves viscerally from one body to another has a naturalistic shakiness. Even the focus that becomes sharp not just to clarify subjects but also to create its own visual rhythms indicates a radical autonomy. But a combination of blurry backgrounds and close-up faces underscores a sense of visual limitation, namely the narrow vision and the myopia of the rebellious teens.
Star, with a sense of headstrong childishness, rejects her status as the forgotten and attempts to be visible. Unlike Jake, she finds it impossible to lie. So she grows dissatisfied with "Krystal" (Riley Keough), the slightly older gang leader, armed in audacious bikini tops, and her made-up disciplines. And she manages to earn by jumping into strangers’ cars. The movie thus extends organically with these side-trip stories. Heedless of dangers, she would rather talk to large, truck-driving men who eye her lecherously than to be left behind. In one scene, Star, in a bright green dress, asks for a ride to the oil plant when the men lose interests in the dancing crew and leave for work. It’s better to be seen than to be ignored.
And if Star is often caught in dire situations, so are the insects. The metaphor cannot be more poignant. Like Star, who jumps from trucks to trucks, the insects have the freedom to go anywhere. Yet both are trapped. Star, who intuitively understands her connection with the minuscule, is the one who recognizes all the flies, the wasps, and the worms, handles them with care, and gives them back their freedom.
However, it is strange that Ms. Arnold decides to turn perilous circumstances in which Star often finds herself benign. How a young, beautiful, poor, and nonwhite woman continues to escape potential violence almost suggests an alarming utopia. Whether Star in real life will be able to emerge unscathed, that is left to our imagination.
©Peier Shen FF2 Media (10/13/16)
Top Photo: "Star" (Sasha Lane) dancing.
Middle Photo: Star and "Jake" (Shia LaBeouf) being intimate.
Bottom Photo: "Krystal" (Riley Keough) and her recruits.
Photo Credits: Holly Horner
There is a palpable tension between Star and Krystal: the former, a free-spirited and rebellious recruit, threatens the authority of the self-proclaimed leader; meanwhile, the latter’s intimate relationship with Jake always unsettles the insecure and love-stricken teenager.
Andrea Arnold is back! After a misguided attempt to adapt Wuthering Heights in 2011 (let's just leave it at "noble failure"), Arnold has returned to the tumultuous here and now.
Like Fish Tank (one of my Top Picks of 2009) and Wasp (the short for which she won an Oscar in 2005), the subject is a young woman who came of age in the home of a mother too young to mother her. (JLH: 4.5/5)