American Honey follows Star (Sasha Lane) as she flees her abusive father’s household for the road life. Across America she trawls in a van full of of other disenfranchised youths, selling magazines to rich households, boogying to hip hop, navigating the boss lady’s territory and inevitably falling for the most fateful guy of the group.
Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, 2009 <3)’s dusty teen road trip movie has been lighting up social media for its evocations of freedom and true American spirit. Thanks to the beautiful Sasha Lane who was plucked from a beach in Florida three weeks before filming, every minute of the three hour journey feels as authentic and undetermined as Andrea could possibly have intended. But that’s not what struck me about it – in fact, I feel these bits are missing the point of why the film is such a leap forward in dismantling crappy gender politics.
First of all, it must be said that it is easy to evoke feelings of liberation and sexually-charged teenage adrenalin by appropriating ready-made art – namely, music. The soundtrack of American Honey can account for most of the exhilaration felt thoughout the escapades of the travelling disenfranchised. It’s not that the soundtrack isn’t a pleasure, especially when the girls of the group sing Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ in a scene reminiscent of 2014’s Girlhood. It’s more that the music is used time and time (and time) again to break up what are essentially long road scenes that drag out, intentionally or not, evoking boredom.
Secondly, Sasha is not just a ‘beautiful’ actress, to quote myself. She’s also a black one with dreadlocks amongst an almost entirely white cast. An article on gal-dem raised the wholly unexplored issue of race in American Honey. Whether or not her race accounts for part of her displacement is a question left unplundered. I don’t think this would have been an issue had the kids not been SCREAMING HIP HOP MUSIC AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS THROUGHOUT (see above). Clearly the director wanted to represent what an enormous part of American culture black music is – how it represents the younger generations’ feelings of otherness, gives them power, and unites them. It’s irresponsible to not address the issues of race that coincide with this representation – are you saying black music is an influence on or a part of American culture? – and for that reason, AH misses a ‘trick’ at the possible expense of alienating audience members.
But, finally, there is something outstanding that American Honey does do, dashing expectations to the roadside and liberating us from certain preconceptions. Representing men. The peripheral men of the film.
I spent 50% of the viewing time of this film mentally preparing myself for Star to be raped. As she climbs into various trucks with archetypal-looking Southern men, the logical next step would be to have her naïve innocence punished. However Star’s honesty as a character – her treatment of all people as human beings alike regardless of the labels they carry – is repaid time and time again.
For someone who has suffered at the hands of an abusive father, climbing into the back of a car containing three cowboys drinking beer doesn’t looks promising for Star, narratively. But although the men – at least twice her age – are clearly intrigued by the reckless young woman, take her back to their home for a barbecue and give her copious amounts of strong liquor, they are clearly facilitating with appreciation Star’s own desires without pushing any clear agenda. They do not intervene as she dances around, or make any questionable gestures that indicate they want to take advantage of her. As the party is cut short by Star’s co-roadie and love interest Jake (Shia Labeouf, who immediately assumes the men have sexual intentions), it is true that we don’t know how things would have played out. However there is every indication that the men share Star’s raw intrigue first and foremost.
This refreshingly human treatment of road-cruising older white men continues as the pirate group travel around pitching their magazines to anyone and everyone. Although Star and the other ladies are actively encouraged by the boss lady (sensationally fierce Riley Keough) to use their sexuality as bait for money that always finds its way into her own pocket, playing the exploitative whip cracker as she does, Star’s actions are met with respect on two more occasions. She climbs into the passenger seat of a truck driver at a gas station (an action I found unbearably tense) and together they cruise down the road listening to the radio, singing, and discussing the driver’s interests in two of the magazines in Star’s brochure. It’s a beautiful, freeing moment that naturally unfolds, and the tension melts away. He drops her off, the sale complete, and a brief but true connection made.
What is very apparent is that Star is turned off by lying. She rejects the preferred method of morphing from character to character in order to entice potential punters – an attitude that lands her in deep shit with the ever-hustling bosslady. And even when she has succumbed to prostituting herself in order to earn money that might allow her and Jake to start a new life together, her dedication to humanising herself and others pays off again. As Star sneaks off into the darkness to meet a random oil worker willing to pay her a thousand dollars for the night, our fear for her female vulnerability is again at an all time high. Yet the man treats her with respect, can see she is nervous and doesn’t touch her once. It is a quick transition. And mirroring the previous situation with the three cowboys, it is Jake that assumes the worst of the oil worker, unable to see past his dehumanising perceptions of “other people”.
Why is the representation of the peripheral male characters so important? It shows the boundless possibility of human nature to lead us to freedom, once all the structural bullshit has been cast out of the mind. It shows the female gaze as open-minded, destroying stereotypes of reactionary feminists. It allows for expansive and progressive conversation. It makes it all seem blindingly obvious that to be “American” is to be a jumbled bunch of people navigating endless roads built on archaic divisions that go against our innate connections. That’s what will last of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.