'American Honey' is about love vs. capitalism, and how class trauma destroys self-worth
The American dream has no place in the wild. The modern vision of that dream is about freedom in stability and property — a family, house and car to call one's own, to hunker down in.
American Honey is a whirling, beautiful vision of how dispossessed people find love and identity when the American dream is completely out of reach, when capitalism is always attempting to take who you are away from you. It's a powerful statement about poor Americans, and how to find freedom when the trauma of class and poverty threatens to swallow up a person's self-worth.
Director Andrea Arnold's film, released in September, is a story about a girl named Star (Sasha Lane), who abandons a home ravaged by meth addiction and sexual abuse to travel with a magazine crew — a traveling band of vagrant kids packed into a van with drugs and booze, selling overpriced magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Through arid trips from motel to motel, she falls for Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the syrupy head salesman of the crew.
American Honey is less a traditional road movie, and more like a retelling of Peter Pan — if Peter was a womanizing huckster on a motorcycle in thrall to a vicious Tinkerbell who uses lost boys and girls as interchangeable mercenaries for her hustle. This is Krystal (Riley Keough), who owns the operation, enticing the children she and Jake pick up along the way with promises of money. Magazine crews, by the way, are a real industry that's been criticized as a pyramid scheme praying on youth in need of money and rehabilitation.
If they can't earn, Krystal makes it clear they'll be left in the middle of nowhere, possibly without food, water or their own shoes.
"You show me you can do it, or I'll leave you on the side of the road," she threatens Star early on.
This threat — that you make money or perish — is the root of the assault on Star's individuality. The movie is full of attacks on the idea that she has any other kind of worth. Early on, Jake gives Star a leather book to keep her sold subscriptions in. As a gift, Jake gives her a set of stickers to decorate the book with — but Star always has to earn these tokens of affection from Jake, wrestling and tickling with him to fight for her prize. Not 10 minutes more into the film, Star learns another girl got her own stickers when she joined up.
It's the cruel trick the world of the film plays on Star repeatedly — on her personality, on her womanhood and on her value. Every indication of specialness is a lie, a sales pitch designed to extract her loyalty, her hard work or her sex.
Sometimes that sex is in cornfields and convertibles — the kind of sex that teases you in trailers, the kind of sex you'd expect in a movie called American Honey. Sometimes it's fornication, animalistic and seen by others in the flickering light of untamed fire.
In American Honey, there are two kinds of animals. There are the caged, domesticated cows and dogs subject to transport to whoever decides to own them. Then there are the lowly insects that crawl all over this film, the spiders, bees and flies that Star methodically, joyfully frees into the wild wherever she finds one trapped.
The symbolism is tactful and obvious: These two classes of creatures are the two types of Americans on display in American Honey. There are the domesticated folk with homes, family and religion, and then there are the wild and untamed. As technology consultant Venkatesh Rao wrote in "A Big Little Idea Called Legibility," these latter kind are people that capitalist systems have no use for.
"The state is not actually interested in the rich functional structure and complex behavior of the very organic entities that it governs," Rao wrote. "It merely views them as resources that must be organized in order to yield optimal returns according to a centralized, narrow and strictly utilitarian logic."
In other words, governments require citizens to settle in one place and own homes so they can be organized, quantified, counted and taxed. This is the American dream the magazine crew in American Honey are only tourists in, as they trample up the well-manicured lawns to pitch whatever story earns them a few dollars.
Vagabonds like the nubile road warriors of American Honey have no place in the American dream, and when you ask them what their dreams for the future are, they respond, "No one's ever asked me that before." It is clear they've never had hope enough to ask themselves.
American Honey doesn't condescend to Middle America. Instead of a folk music soundtrack, Star and her makeshift family fight and dance to whatever's on the radio — Rae Sremmurd, Juicy J, Rihanna.
"Hater? Nope!" they chant along in a parking lot to "Choices" by E-40. "Wanna see a player get paper? Yup! Traitor? Nope! Loyal to my soil, not a faker? Yup!"
The only binding culture among the kids, enforced by Krystal with the threat of immediate poverty, is paper-chasing. But it's clear the children of the film are dispossessed by negligent parents, broken homes and extreme poverty. Having pride in their hustle is a coping mechanism, like the ritual fighting that Krystal organizes between the lowest-earning members of the group.
Violence, sex and pop culture are all forms of catharsis and escape for these kids. Neither the city swagger of Big Sean nor the pastoral nostalgia of Lady Antebellum is truly theirs, except for those moments that it happens to play on the radio. When toward the end of the movie the kids sing to each other the lyrics of the title song, "American Honey" — "She grew up on a side of the road/ Where the church bells ring/ And strong love grows" — they're only visitors in the comfort of the American fairytale.
For Star, her dream isn't so far from, well, "the" dream. Star and Jake don't often get to talk about their relationship — Krystal says romance is bad for business — but they eventually they get to admit out loud that they're not fundamentally different from the normies they visit along the road. They want some land, with tall trees and a family of their own. Until then, they're on the run, taking joy only in the act of escaping, in setting free the insects.
Viewers accustomed to tidy resolutions will be left wanting. They won't be satisfied with the film's ending, one that leaves no clean answers for Star's future, or what becomes of her makeshift family. American Honey is about what's left of happiness for people without the comfort and inheritance of certain futures.
For dispossessed people, the American dream isn't the false freedom of a plot of land, but the momentary feeling of freedom available to the wild, happy few willing to steal it.
American Honey is in limited release in theaters now.