The American Dream of 'American Honey'
It’s not hyperbole to say that Andrea Arnold is one of the most talented directors working today. She’s a three time Jury Prize winner at the Cannes International Film Festival, an Oscar winner for her short film Wasp, and a BAFTA winner for Best British Film in 2009. Until now, Arnold has applied her vision to narratives set in England, focusing on characters living at or below the poverty line. Her newest film, American Honey, is her first project set within the United States. American Honey was no doubt a risk for the director - one that ultimately paid off. With American Honey, Arnold has created one of the best portrayals of American culture released in the 21st century.
American Honey follows Star, played phenomenally by first-time actress Sasha Lane, as she joins a group of twenty-something magazine sellers traveling in and out of rich city suburbs, oil soaked back country, and impoverished towns throughout the midwest. The inspiration from the film came from an article that Arnold read in the New York Times. However, it would be wrong to look at American Honey as an adaptation of factual events. Rather, it uses its factual background as a basis for inspiration, as a foundation upon which Arnold creates a new American allegory. The film plays out like a bleeding, sun-soaked, self-destructive, money-driven road trip. It’s a coming of age story, a tale of love, a capitalist nightmare, and a commentary on youth blended together with the frantic energy of an all-night rave. All of this is to say that American Honey is intensely millennial (for lack of a better word). It celebrates its lack of principles and morality, and refuses to abide by traditional structures that typically define a film’s socio-political orientation. Whether or not this is by Arnold’s design is for her to say (or not say), but the film speaks for itself. With American Honey, Arnold has crafted a film that depicts a revisionist American Dream, one that exists in direct conflict to the traditional manifest destiny narrative, that aligns with the morals and ideals of the newest generation.
In order to understand what this revisionist American dream is, it’s important to understand the elements that influenced its creation - desperation for survival, rejection from predominate social and institutional groups, and the desire for uniqueness. At face value these are really lofty ideas, but American Honey opens with a sequence of three scenes that help define them.
The first scene of the film introduces the element of desperation: the audience sees Star digging through a dumpster behind a grocery store. We see her pick up a frozen turkey that’s been thawed under the heat of the sun and toss it down to her companion, a young boy, who drops it onto the pavement. They are so desperate for anything, that this turkey - thawed, rotting, and bloody - is considered a stroke of good luck. There are no mixed messages here - Star lives in poverty and her survival is not guaranteed. This unabashed depiction of poverty, of the desperation for survival, helps to define American Honey’s revisionist American dream. This experience of diving through a dumpster to find food is both symbolic and representative of millions of people in the United States. The way the film is able to balance the duality of its representative and symbolic narratives is impressive. The scene operates symbolically, or even allegorically, by drawing on hyperbole to craft a situation or scene that resonates thematically with the experiences of a generation. At the same time, the scene is also representative - depicting Star’s experience in a way that is both realistic and respectful to the very real plight of millions of Americans.
The very next scene shows Star with the boy and his sister (neither child is older than ten) hitchhiking on the side of the road, their thumbs out, desperate for a ride. The audience sees them rejected once, twice, three times, and then rejected again by a car with a “God Will Come” sticker plastered across the rear windshield. With this scene, Arnold is emphasizing the rejection that millions of people face every day by the very communities that claim to want to help. Again, the way the Arnold is able to balance the symbolism of the scene against it’s representative nature is impressive, but entirely natural.
The third scene in this sequence is the encounter that Star has with Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake is one of the ringleaders of the magazine sellers and he makes an immediate connection with Star. He singles her out from across a store followed by a very intimate interaction in the parking lot where Jake offers Star a job and the opportunity to join him on the road. This entire sequence reflects a really inherent element to the revisionist American Dream - the desire to be seen as unique. Her interaction with Jake ignites something in Star, something that leads her to leave her family and run away with the Jake and his group of friends/co-workers/vagrants. In offering Star a job, Jake is doing what no one else has ever offered to do for her. He's willing to help her, to give her a chance at achieving something. Moreover, and even more carnally grounded, Jake’s immediate connection with Star is significant because it shows that she can be noticed. The audience watches as Jake stares at Star for nearly five minutes before even talking to her. This is in direct contrast to the previous scene where Star was repetitively ignored by passing cars. By paying attention to Star, Jake is playing into Star’s desire to be unique in world that tends to reject her existence, rather than embrace it.
These three elements define the nature of American Honey’s revisionist American dream. Arnold uses Star’s character as a symbolic figurehead for a generation - her desperation for survival, rejection from society, and desire for uniqueness are representative of a genuine generational struggle. When we talk about “millennials” the conversation is warped by the generation leading the discussion. Arnold, however, gives voice to the millennial generation and shows impressive empathy for their perspective. Many of them were brought up in a world where they were told they could have everything and quickly realize this isn’t true. The dreams they were taught to dream end up being out of reach. Another significant portion of this generation has been raised in circumstances where the opportunity for dreaming was never an option. The American Dream, in the the traditional sense of manifest destiny, just doesn’t exist anymore. American Honey seeks to validate the feelings and experiences of a generation that was promised something that is no longer attainable.
Arnold allows this theme to flow throughout the film, broaching the issue directly only twice. First, a truck driver that Star is selling magazines to asks her what her dream is. She answers simply that she wants to live in a trailer in the woods with a lot of kids; she seeks a quiet and stable life. In a scene that mirrors this one, Star asks Jake what his dreams are and he echoes her sentiments to a T. These dreams are the antithesis to the manifest destiny attitude that has defined the American Dream for decades. Instead of striving for bigger and better, millennials seek stability. Star, Jake, and their entire crew represent a significant demographic of a generation that has been underserved, marginalized, and rejected by traditional societal hierarchies. This is part of American Honey’s brilliance; it doesn’t shy away from the carnal energy of these people’s experiences. It’s committed to its portrayal of a demographic so often ignored. American Honey does not seek to offer solutions, but rather sets its sights on opening the eyes of its audiences to the influences that have changed what our American dream is in its current iteration.