Film writer AJ Caulfield has taken the #52FilmsbyWomen pledge, where she will watch one movie directed by a women per week throughout 2018. Here on The Young Folks, AJ reflects on the films she’s viewed — including female-directed classics and new-to-the-scene flicks — in efforts to celebrate female voices in the media landscape. Learn more about the #52FilmsbyWomen project here.
In the first female-directed film I watched in 2018, a queer couple was reminded that their own happiness and well-being and that of their two children are of the utmost importance in life, regardless of any curveballs some divine pitcher throws their way, regardless if they strike out after infinite tries. They discovered, and the audience was assured, that the kids were all right. In the second lady-helmed movie I settled into this year, they aren’t — but they may be in time.
Former actress turned bonafide filmmaker Andrea Arnold achieves boundless triumphs in her road-trip drama pic American Honey, toplined by the fresh-faced Sasha Lane (who had, to the surprise of many, never acted in a feature film before this one). One such win is that Arnold fastidiously — but still organically — captures the chaotic energy of youth, couching the turbulent surge-and-sway motion of rebellion and restlessness in Lane’s Star. Another is that she does this without without pandering to some predetermined expectation of what a Good Drama Film should be, patronizing the narrative’s young characters, or soft-pedaling the fire and fervor of what it means to be a teenager, especially one from a low socioeconomic class. (Remember feeling everything so much, all the time, in your high school days, and yet rarely being able to verbalize what it is that you want and need? Arnold nails that down with a hair-fine pin, and doesn’t make Star seem hardened or somehow more humble because she’s had a difficult life.)
The heart of American Honey is rooted in the soft underbelly of middle America and opens over a gone-to-rack-and-ruin trailer park in Muskogee, Oklahoma, perhaps the most unassuming of the country’s 50 states. There, we meet Star — an 18-year-old with loose dreads, chipped neon nail polish, a mouth that curls at its lips’ corners, and a mind that churns with wonder fuel — who cares for two small children and tries to bandage the abuse and assault she faces at the hands of their father, Nathan (Johnny Pierce II), a man she calls “Daddy.”
Star’s world blooms with new opportunity when she happens upon a pack of vagabonds (all of whom, like Star, face the setting sun of their adolescence) bursting with vivacity and lacking in cares as they flood a K-Mart check-out with the cacophony of life. (Arnold imagines it to sound like Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ “We Found Love” played over a store’s PA system.)
This group bows to the exultant Jake (Shia LeBeouf) as their fearless leader, and Jake takes a liking to Star when the two cross paths between the painted lines of the parking lot. He propositions her: Leave the trailer, the kids, and Daddy in the proverbial rearview and take a seat in the gang’s van as they bounce from door to door selling magazine subscriptions as a way to strap some cash to their belts. Star’s intrigue is undeniable, as is her apparent pull to Jake’s punky, plentiful presence. And though she initially declines Jake’s offer, her attraction to the tattered troupe can’t be ignored. In a moment’s notice, Star dumps the children off with their mother (Chasity Hunsaker) and crams her clothes into whatever bags she can scrounge, heading toward both the group’s home on wheels and a future ripe for the taking.
It’s here where Star’s motivation grows clearer. Star’s hope beyond all hopes is to break free from the shackles of hopelessness that bind her to that trailer, and the ironic innocence of her character is that she does it alongside a band of outcasts whose relationships start and end with each other. She wants to taste the wide unknown, but leans on people who aren’t able to connect with anyone outside their own circle. So it’s not that Jake and co.’s scraggly aesthetics, street smarts, and skater-punk charms are what resonate most with her; rather, it’s what they represent — the dwindling light of Sticking It to the Man, the potential for freedom — that lures her in.
For Star, and for the group that takes her in, rebellion isn’t about trashing hotel rooms, mouthing off to Baby Boomers, or committing any crimes that could land them in the slammer. It’s about squeezing life for all the juice its worth and throwing caution to the wind — oftentimes dangerously so, though therein lies the whole point of it. Star is willing and eager to dive headfirst if there’s even a minuscule possibility that a better life can be found at the end of the road.
Once Star on-boards the salespeople tribe, the hustle begins. Jake takes her by the hand and shows her the ropes, while the troupe’s true boss Krystal (Riley Keough) keeps the ship running tight. Krystal is the outsider amongst the outsiders, residing in the upper echelon of black-sheepedness where she finds confidence in her self-touted ability to control. Krystal travels in a separate vehicle, books motel rooms away from the rest of the gang, and enforces strict rules to which her underlings must abide, the most stringent of which regards engaging in a sexual relationship with another group member and how that will never, ever fly under her watchful eye. After all, Krystal keeps Jake on a tight leash as her standby lover and calls him up when she’s feening for a fix — and she apparently doesn’t want anyone else sharing in that kind of bespoke pleasure. But the spark between Star and Jake doesn’t fizzle out under Krystal’s iron fist; instead, it grows more ardent with each magazine sold, each truth about the world realized.
In Jake’s lessons on sales, he teaches Star about more than just getting suburban housewives to agree to purchase something they don’t need. His sidewalk lectures highlight the contrast between his own approach to sales and that of the crew’s; where his fellows stick to a script, Jake goes off the cuff and devises a story he believes the customer wants to hear, crafting falsehood after falsehood to fit the person standing in front of him. Star listens and learns, but ultimately takes a different route, telling Jake that despite her lack of experience in sales, she believes the best approach is to just speak the truth. What comes of her choice is an awe-inspiring display of audaciousness and skillful moment-to-moment crystallization that inches her closer to her dreams — of which we learn she has many, ones that distance her from the people she may have anticipated would be the key to unlock the rest of her life.
In the face of great adversities — namely her lack of financial stability, the sexual abuse she’s endured, and the crushing reality that the American Dream is, for the first time in generations, no longer attainable — Star still dares to dream. She wishes for a life with Jake, unattached from Krystal, and a home filled with lots of children. They’re adult desires for a teenager who speaks about them as though she’s still a child listing the things she hopes to be when she’s grown up. American Honey is beautiful for this, breaking for this, as watching Star straddle the line of dependency and independence juxtaposed against her group’s transient, fleeting wishes and stuck-in-the-now perspectives is an altogether unmatched experience.
Through a simultaneously careful and carefree encapsulation of youthful energy, the hardships of a young woman who goes without the safety of a family or of finances, and emotions at their most raw, Arnold delivers moving art in American Honey. While much of the film is spent in silence, scenes filled with buzzing pop beats in place of dialogue, American Honey screams with dynamism and swirls outward into nothing and everything all at once.