American Honey starts with a beginning and then goes and goes, with no middle-peak and ending-plateau to complete a classical plot arc. Instead, we ride along on a journey which takes various pit stops down roads we never see the end of.
Andrea Arnold’s previous feature films include Red Road (2006), Fish Tank (2009) and Wuthering Heights (2011), making American Honey her fourth cinematic look at white working class culture with a female central role. Marking Arnold’s first picture made outside of Britain, American Honey seamlessly moves her rhetoric and style over to the States, securing her thoughtful representation as one which is not exclusive to the borders of a single country. The film follows Star (Sasha Lane), who flees her blood relatives to join a family of nomads she encounters. This cataclysmic decision is forged after she and the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf) share a desirous glance across a supermarket, and their subsequent relationship comes to underpin the film’s entirety. Along with his gang of other down-and-out kids accrued from a plethora of American towns, Star and Jake bounce around the country, motel to motel, to sell door to door magazine subscriptions to anyone they can convince to part with some money. The automobile vehicle can take you anywhere you need to go. This shotgun tour of America fluctuates between luxurious houses — Mc-Mansions erected in a squeaky atmosphere so high pitched only dogs can hear it (dogs and maybe god) – and the rumble of poverty. Against this backdrop, rat kids, playing in dirt together, joyfully, carnally and viscerally, consistently display warmth in their kinship. They are knitted together in shallow focus and camera shake, beautiful and infused with love in every turn, the only exception being Crystal, the “boss-lady”, cut as cold as the name suggests.
In terms of central theme, it is a film about the capitalist American landscape. Crystal keeps reminding the group about their love of money, which is written into every chant and then reverberated into the throbbing, thick and swampy hip-hop/rap tracks they constantly play and sing along to in the minibus. The film asks — where and what is America? Its answer — crevices of gristly experience that get stuck between the teeth, and an oscillation between the two lifestyles of dirt poor and filthy rich that rub together, creating the whole like white and red stripes on a tattered flag. This film understands American culture to be a relationship so preoccupied with financial profit that business looks the same as criminality. Jake thinks he looks like a “Donald Trump” type business man, whilst Star sees “a gangster.”
The film is a carnal being, and this visual tactility crescendos in the scene in which one of the boys, naked, red and sculpted, pounds into another boy’s body. The camera appears to take on a corporeal, sensual quality — it becomes salty skin I want to bite into, give a love bite to, swap saliva with — it is the camera that holds the boys’ bodies in its frame. Creating this kind of embodiment through visual apparatus is difficult. Arnold arrives at these haptic affects through various camera techniques: shallow focus, (almost clumsy) hand-held camera shake and majority close up or medium close up shots that sometimes verge on the claustrophobic, such as those in the back of the crowded minibus. Instead of a “bird’s eye/god’s eye” camera technique that moves its gaze smoothly across scenes to relay some (outdated) notion of an objective and disembodied perspective of action, Arnold has no such pretenses. Bodies, spaces and interactions are rebelliously close because the camera allows itself to be intimately muddled in the action it films. My own body in the cinema clenched and released, recoiled and swelled, tensed as I kept expecting something “bad to happen”, whatever that might mean. Often I caught myself distrusting the people Star was brushing against only to realise that this is precisely the point. She is a wild entity, attuned to her environment as well as social concerns. Whether jumping in the back of a truck or front of a van, rummaging in a dumpster, running across a lawn, sleeping in a car park, walking into water, Star’s surroundings are never off limits. Her body is not described as separate from her environment in the narrative, and the camera’s shallow focus often literally blurs the lines of where objects and subjects begin and end. Even if she occasionally moves into different social agreements with people to get the money she needs, the way in which she uses her funds to help others firmly roots her in an unshakable moral high ground.
However, it is not just the mise-en-scène and camera style that relates “realism” in American Honey, it is an interplay of ambience and action. Voyeuristic glimpses capture this, noticing small moments that are poetic because they are, like everything in the world, infused with meaning: an insect on her shoulder, strawberries in the trash, smoking a cigarette.
Star and Jake don’t dream big for huge houses and flash cars, but they do dream for something. They are special ideas that hibernate in their bodies, rarely surfacing for air. Jake reveals his dreams in a glint of a secret goldmine which catches light on a dark night, as if creating a tiny trapdoor in their mental and financial trappings. This portal of aspiration is never passed through but provides a greater chance for happiness, a spark or golden hue of possibility, like sun kissed skin, like honey.
American Honey plays at Phoenix Picturehouse until 20th October, and runs at Ultimate Picture Palace from 11th November until 16th November.
My name is James Lawrence Slattery (also known as James Tennessee Fair), studying a MSt in Film Aethetics and based at St Anne’s College, Oxford. I am also a practicing artist and make work about ghosts and sirens. I have several blogs: http://www.jamesls.tumblr.com, http://www.sirenarchive.tumblr.com and http://www.tobereel.tumblr.com