AS THOSE who have watched Dennis Hooper’s Easy Rider (1969) will know, a lot can be discovered – both externally and internally – on an American road trip. The same applies to American Honey.
Andrea Arnold’s 2016 film follows Star (Sasha Lane) as she leaves the poverty of her home to embark on her own mythologising trip across the States. Enticed by brass energy of Jake (Shia LaBeouf), Star joins a group of young magazine sellers as they travel around in a white van.
The trip brings Star into contact with an array of people from all walks of American life. Sadly, many of these people share a common desire – to exploit Star, some in more overt ways than others.
Teamed up with Jake to sell magazines on her first day, Star encounters a Christian mother who lives in the sanctity of an upper-class neighbourhood.
As Jake blags away, Star begins to take issue with the woman’s judgmental tone. When the lady realises this ‘good deed’ is not worth the hassle, she throws them out announcing: ‘I have tried to be Christian.’ Ironically, Star was the most honest and good willed person in the room.
Apart from a friendly truck driver, the men Star meets are rather detestable. A group of ageing cowboys pick her up and take her back to their BBQ for entertainment. They throw money and drink at her as though she is a lower-class play toy until a gun-toting Jake prevents the cowboys from exploiting her any further.
Star’s awe at the $400 the cowboys are willing to flitter away in her presence is a stark reminder of the massive wealth inequalities in the country.
Likewise, the oil worker whom Star agrees to meet after work hours merely uses her as an end to his desperate sexual needs. The unsettling nature of the scene, in front of a romantic burning flame, underlines the corrupting forces Star is at the mercy of.
All of this exploitation does not appear to be new to Star. When we first meet her, there is implied abuse involving the man she lives with and refers to as ‘daddy’. The ambivalence of Star’s background makes it feel all the more universal – this could be any young woman.
We know little of Star’s past, her mind and the reasons for her unpredictable behaviour. Instead, we observe Star observing the world around her. A big part of this is the commonalty she finds with nature, starting with the cosmic name she was given by her now deceased mother. We often see Star helping insects such as a trapped moth and a drowning wasp, just as she notices the cattle locked away in the back of a lorry.
There is a sense that Star can relate to these confined creatures. She too has been born into a position of relative haplessness, a world that is willing to let her drown at any moment. Despite this, Star still chooses to be kind and caring to those in need.
Star is equally helpful to a house of kids she comes across while selling magazines in a poverty-stricken area. Noticing the children are without guardians, she takes time from her work to buy them groceries and fill their empty fridge. Star selflessly cares for others in a way that no one around her – even those in more fortunate positions – have cared to do so.
The film’s most explicit mythologising moment arrives when a brown bear greets Star at dawn. It cements her innocence in the film, away from the insulated greed and want of the modern world. Where others seek power in money and sex, Star finds comfort in a Emersonian respect for nature. For all the poverty she has endured, this is where Star finds a richness in life.
The closing scene of the film sees Jake hand Star a tortoise. She takes it to the nearby water and lets it free before symbolically dunking herself under the water. Perhaps she is washing away the seedy exploitation suffered at the hands of the oil worker and is ready to reconnect with both nature and Jake.
The film’s credits play to the sounds of a little known 1974 track by country artist Razzy Bailey titled ‘I Hate Hate.’ It is a song that rallies liberals and democrats, young and old, to reject hate and unite under a banner of love.
In 2017 – a time of Trumpian rule, culture wars, social media polarisation, identity politics and Hollywood abuse scandals – this message feels all too pertinent, yet still completely out of reach.
If American Honey offers any solace, beyond its beautifully poetic images, it can be found in Star. She is honest (even to a fault), humble and in touch with nature (and by proxy her own condition).
Pure and sweet just like American honey. Worth a watch if only to remind us that there is a beautiful world out there beyond President Trump.
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