Hollywood often paints a different picture but Andrea Arnold is telling a story about sex, love and freedom against the backdrop of social stratification and oppression
We reveal most about ourselves when we fall in love. Some of us fall in love with fury – an urgent, compressed and downhill kind of feeling, hungry and consuming. Some of us fall in love gently, a nervous trepidation into another person. Some of us pretend that we don’t fall in love at all, and perhaps after a while the prophecy comes true. Love demands a vulnerability we ritualistically sacrifice. Perhaps its loss is a natural symptom to our anatomised lives. Perhaps we are more efficient, adjusted people out of love; perhaps lovelessness and loneliness are central to our modern lives. As Olivia Laing wrote in The Lonely City, “loneliness is personal and it is also political”. While we’re young, though, we all fall in love. And American Honey is, above all else, a love story.
Like Mathieu Kassovitz, Harmony Korine and Larry Clark before her, Andrea Arnold is talking about sex, love and freedom against the backdrop of social stratification and oppression. “I like to make money, get turnt,” rings the anthem. Confederate flag bikinis and beer for breakfast. This is not the road trip of Kerouac’s America. It has twisted. It is tense with class division, and though it surges in moments of ecstasy, there is an underlying note of tragedy. The plotline is simple: in a small town in middle America, a young girl from a broken home named Star (Sasha Lane) runs into a young man named Jake (Shia LaBeouf). He offers her a job selling magazines. “Will anyone miss you?” asks Krystal (Riley Keough), the boss/matriarch, the only question needed in such a job interview. “I guess not,” is Star’s response. In the decaying America that Andrea Arnold bears witness to, there are two currencies: sex and violence, constantly intersecting as the crew makes their way across a divided country.
Our protagonist, Star, was first introduced to us in a kind of modern hunter-gatherer scene — which is to say, we meet her as she is dumpster diving. She is providing for her younger siblings, neglected by selfish, absent and abusive parents, with a combination of loyalty and apathy. As she holds out her hand to hitchhike with her young siblings and their scavenged chicken in tow, ignored by a car with a ‘God Is Coming’ bumper sticker, she asks, “Are we invisible?” The answer, of course, is yes. So when she locks eyes with the charming Jake, she is being offered love, even if it is sometimes just manifests as sex. When she is offered a place in a van, she is being offered hope, however small. With a crew of misfits, she is being offered solidarity, however tempered. She is being offered more than she has ever had, which is not much at all, and so she says yes.
Where Star remains startlingly sincere and tender, as if untouched by the corrosion all around her, Jake is a hustler, a true product of our cultural arena. There is a restlessness to him, a misplaced ambition that easily turns violent. He has adapted to a society where everything – including love – is a transaction. In the binary model of winner and loser that America offers, he’s claiming winner. He tailors his story to suit his audience; making him the top performer of the magazine crew. He paints himself as a college hopeful to upper-middle class suburbia; he mimics their language of aspiration and false civility. In the next stop, he’ll be a war hero, or a reformed addict. He understands that charity desires mostly mirrors. Where Star is a romantic, Jake is a pragmatist. His machismo is armour, we know. There’s more to him, we know. He has just so much potential, we know, but it’s exhausting, and never quite enough to redeem him.
“When she locks eyes with the charming Jake, she is being offered love, even if it sometimes just manifests as sex. When she is offered a place in a van, she is being offered hope, however small”
Andrea Arnold exhibits incredible restraint in not saving Jake, in not packaging his angst into a more palatable storyline. He does not become good with love. His faith in Star is shattered, as is hers in him, and the world goes on. His despair is heavy, and you can see that it may break him. Star asked him about his dreams, though, in that way new lovers do. “Nobody’s ever asked me that,” he says. In that moment, you have faith that the young lovers will be OK, if only because they’re still capable of asking these questions. He may not be saved, but he remains afloat.
Michel Houellebecq said that his books concern the loss of love in the same way that Dostoevsky’s concerned the loss of God. Causing its disappearance, he claimed, is “the materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.” If the loss of God came first, and then the loss of love, the last thing we have to lose is hope. We are living in the kind of times where a rat is sewn into a Zara dress, and when the wearer threatens to sue the company, the victim is perceived to be the Manhattan shopper. We don’t consider the desperation of the hands that sewed the rat into the fabric, only the discomfort of the body rubbing up against a claw. Is this gesture of protest a sign of hope? Or is it a sign of our corruption? Andrea Arnold has lived a (British council flats) version of American Honey. As has Shia LaBeouf, who isn’t third-generation Hollywood establishment, and is a true (and remarkable) example of American hustle, luck and come-up. So too has Sasha Lane, who Arnold picked up from a spring break beach, and most of the other actors in the film, few of whom are trained and most of whom were scouted. This is not to say that the film’s truth is owing to its practice. It is to say that this is a true film for our time.
“Andrea Arnold has lived a British council flats version of American Honey. As has Shia LaBeouf, who isn’t third-generation Hollywood establishment, and is a true example of American hustle, luck and come-up”
With the fallout from Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of the far right at every turn, much has been written about the angry new world we have, seemingly, suddenly found ourselves in. Those surprised by this new vision of chaos and resentment have been living blind. Much like the Manhattan shopper crying surprise at the presence of a rat in her clothes, they haven’t bothered to question upon what or whom their privilege rests, until it is manifest in the crudest of symbols. Hollywood most often feeds us films that assure us of an ascending evolution. Their stories soothe us with the idea that we’re on a path that may sometimes be hard, but is ultimately good. American Honey rejects this notion and its inherent hypocrisies. There is no path. Instead, there is a spiral — sometimes ascending, sometimes descending, but forever in flux.
American Honey is available now. You can read our feature with Dazed 25 cover star Sasha Lane (Star) here.