American Honey (2016)

Dir. Andrea Arnold. Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LeBeouf, Riley Keough

(Featured image links here.)

Krystal (Keough) is a master of the power move. Throughout American Honey she manages to manipulate, cow, impress, and otherwise command a group of a dozen or so teenagers/twenty-somethings with little more than magazine subscriptions. Her game is the mag crew, which wanders around the Midwest with no obvious destinations or patterns. (I wasn’t surprised to find out that mag crews are, in fact, a thing, but it’s still sad.) Twenty-five percent of all subscription money goes to the sellers; the other three-quarters goes to Krystal’s overhead: the van, gas money, lodgings. Of that twenty-five percent, it looks like just about all of that goes to weed, alcohol, and sugar. It is very obviously a trap, but it’s only obvious to someone with the perspective one gets from present parents or a safe upbringing or experience. In short, the trap isn’t obvious at all to the kids. Krystal keeps everyone in line with a draconian schedule to adhere to and the threat of a “loser’s fight” in which the two lowest sellers beat each other up in front of the others. Be too bad at selling and they’ll just dump you somewhere without money or food. For Star (Lane), there are other things Krystal has to do to maintain order, which are so wicked that they might have come straight from the pseudo-cult leader’s handbook.

Krystal’s top seller is Jake (LeBeouf), whose secret to success is ignoring the sob stories that everyone else peddles and instead trying to figure out what his mark wants to hear. Jake brings Star on from her hometown of Muskogee essentially on the promise of escape mixed with romance. Krystal, whose Disney princess eyes imply a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning sometime next week, summons Star. Krystal is wearing a Confederate flag bikini which leaves nothing to the imagination; it might have done for those of us with impaired imaginations, but we’ve already seen her topless. She wants to know why Jake’s sales are down to their lowest-ever levels. Well, Jake’s been training me, Star says. (She and Jake have been flirting; earlier she sabotaged a sale he might have made by being needlessly defiant, and later she ran off, let herself get caught, and kissed him on someone’s lawn.) Jake trained every girl, Krystal  says, and this has never happened before. Jake comes out from the bathroom, presumably; Krystal has him start rubbing lotion on her legs. Jake doesn’t look at Star while he does it.

Star is painfully, sadly naive. She’s eighteen years old and seems totally vulnerable, without any experience at all in the way people act. Her impulses are those of a girl five, ten years younger. She tries to make Jake jealous by kissing another guy. Jake threatens not to give her a present because she’s been acting badly, and she whines about the present and climbs on his back until he gives it to her. The first house she and Jake hit together is the site of some pre-teen’s birthday sleepover party going into the next morning. The pre-teen (“Destiny”) answers the door and Jake, with his wild mane of hair bending down into a ridiculous long braid, asks her what she thinks his coat is made of. She’s wearing makeup in the style of thirteen-year-olds, which is to say sparkly and haphazard, and she feels the arm of his coat. “That’s boyfriend material,” Jake says. She giggles. (I laughed too. It was so dumb I couldn’t not laugh.) As Jake tries to nail the sale, Destiny and her friends dance like Regina George’s little sister in the sprinklers. At one point, the girl’s mom chuckles, and Star is like a tiger defending Jake to the point of completely unfogging the scam. It’s her revenge, the kind which is best suited not to someone who is thinking about money but who has only a misplaced loyalty on the mind. It’s all tied in together – Jake’s lies, the little girl who had Jake’s attention for a moment, the mother who gave the mere appearance of having insulted her beloved. It’s hard to watch Star. She is so clueless and artless that I almost got mad at her; it’s not nice to watch someone who is cruel and manipulative, like Jake and Krystal are, but it’s not nice to watch someone who is as ungainly and vulnerable as a newborn giraffe.

Star’s straightforward innocence is a detriment among people around her own age, who understand her deficiencies and know how to attack them. Jake recruits Star with the offer of making $300 a day (which would be harder than patching the ozone layer without a degree or a ladder). Jake and Star have sex in a stolen car, come back after the pickup, and Jake pressures Star into giving him the money for the first sale so he can smooth things over with Krystal. Star believes him. Krystal eventually lets loose that she pays Jake “girl-money.” The flirtatious invitation Jake gave her was little more than an opportunity to get a hundred bucks from his boss. Ironically, with an older crowd, Star’s innocence plays a little better. Her first sale is made with a group of old cowboys (starring Will Patton) who offer to buy her magazine subscriptions if she drinks enough mezcal to eat the worm at the bottom (which, oof). Later she’ll charm a truck bed of oilmen enough to get one to pay her a thousand bucks for a night’s company. In the middle of those encounters, she meets a trucker who offers to buy a couple magazines because he respects the modest dream she has. Only the trucker comes with honest intentions, but these interactions prove that Star’s primary response mechanism is triggered by kindness. The oil guys in the truck bed hear her out, for the most part, as she tries to make her pitch, and none of them are lewd except the one who makes the offer. The cowboys, though they get her drunk, are also fairly respectful, more impressed than anything else by the amount of mezcal she downs. (Jake threatens them at gunpoint and steals their car. Star is aghast: they were nice to me, she repeats over and over again.) In the same way, she tries to be kind to smaller children. My favorite character in the movie is the little girl wearing an Iron Maiden shirt. Is that your favorite band? Star asks her. No, the Dead Kennedys, the little girl replies. She buys that passel of kids some groceries when she recognizes that their mother is a meth addict, like Star’s mother was. There is plenty of acid scalding the film, but there are dozens of moments of adulterated kindness. For most of the film’s audience, that kindness would be well past its expiration date. For Star, who began the movie digging a previously frozen chicken out of a dumpster, expiration dates are for people who can afford them.

Many of the touches which exemplified Arnold’s work on Fish Tank remain here. Our lead runs around at night, followed by a handheld camera; the blue-orange setups remain exceptional but cliched. But American Honey manages to do something which one only rarely sees in movies. Other movies will try to convey temperature using sweat on faces, or steam rising, or, worst of all, dialogue. American Honey is simply unrelenting, taking place in that part of America where the skies are not cloudy all day, or hardly at all. We get it from the sheer amount of light infused into the film, the cramming of people into small rooms or into the van, the crackling fires which show up periodically. It’s a credit to Arnold and DP Robbie Ryan, who use the light as a way to lend intensity to the story. The length of American Honey – more than two and a half hours, much longer than Arnold’s typically leaner work – diffuses much of the tension between characters who might typically build some; at the same time, Arnold stays away from montages which might dull specificity. The film manages to keep its temperature at a simmer because it is clearly a summer story, one where the heat pushes its people down, tiring them beyond fighting back.

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