[Film] My Strange Obsession with ‘American Honey’

** This is more of an analysis of the film than any kind of review. As of 6-14-20, this film is watchable on Netflix if you have not seen it. So spoilers are ahead bitches – you’ve been warned! **

Before quarantine life became this regular, indefinite thing, my fiance and I toked some nice herbals, plopped down on the couch and found this movie while endlessly scrolling through Netflix. Upon first viewing, I have to admit, I didn’t like it. Not that I hated it, but it was awkward to watch – there were many long, drawn out scenic shots that I didn’t quite appreciate at the time, the characters seemed juvenile and immature, and watching our hero Star get dangerously close to her imminent demise was cringy at best. But we watched it all the way through, and it gave us a lot to talk about.

Now fast forward a few months later, when I’ve been stuck in the house for over a month, I decided to give the film another chance. My perception was almost night and day – suddenly those long, drawn out scenic shots held a quiet beauty to them, capturing sometimes the hopelessness of small town, country life or that feeling of driving to and from a new city or town while living a nomadic lifestyle. I became almost jealous of the characters and their blissful, hedonistic view on life, and Star’s journey suddenly began to make more sense to me. Since then, I’ve re-watched it nearly a dozen times, realizing there are so many layers to the film’s narrative and finding something new to think about every so often. I’ve also learned to recognize that this is not a film for everyone, but an open and perceptive mind can come to appreciate it, even if you can’t necessarily relate to the characters or the content of the story.

So I’d like to take some time to pick apart the many layers and themes the film has and discuss some of the characters and their journey.

A Brief Overview

Released in 2016 and directed by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, the film follows Star, a country girl from Oklahoma, who, after a brief run in with a guy named Jake, who claims to be a ‘business manager’ selling magazines door to door insists on giving her a job that requires heading out on the road with him and his team, drops everything and heads out like Kerouac. The truth is that she was instantly swooned by smooth talking Jake and life in Oklahoma, as we are shown early on in the film, sucks ass (be sure to keep in mind where she comes from as we analyze where she goes). 

She meets up with Jake and his team at a motel on the outskirts of town, and after greetings with the rest of the crew they take off for Kansas City. The team is made up of a group of rowdy, hedonistic bunch of young kids that seem to have come from similar, or worst, circumstances. They’re individual backstories aren’t really explored, but overall the energy is nothing but positive vibes – they accept Star immediately with open arms as if she has always been a part of the gang. Debauchery ensues as they share liquor, pass blunts and do whatever else that just… feels right. The magazine sales sort of takes a back seat to the plot and is really just the catalyst to experiences to be had and the interesting people Star meets along the way.

Star & the Great Escape

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One of my favorite scenes is when Star takes her siblings to the dance hall and leaves them with their mother. Something about it gives me a sense that Star is finally liberated. The opening of the film presents us with her life as mundane and hopeless – she is primary care taker for two kids that aren’t hers. She doesn’t work and seems to live in a town with not many prospects, which resorts to her and her siblings having to dumpster dive just to have a decent meal at the end of the day. And on top of all that, it seems her step Father has no issues with sexually assaulting her after he gets drunk and high in the living room. Her life and future seem bleak…. that is until she meets Jake.

Jake, from the moment she spots him and his crew and follows them into a department store, seems full of life and promise, and above all, love (more on that later). So watching Star drop everything in an attempt to chase things her life seems to lack is rewarding in a way. The film gives a sense that it wasn’t an easy choice for her to make, but it was the ONLY choice if she was ever going to experience a life that wasn’t so predictably boring. I got the sense that she was chasing something even more than she was running away from something. I tend to gravitate towards characters that liberate themselves from tough situations, because I too have made big, swift life decisions that most people would be afraid to make or see as naive.

When I first saw the movie, I was quick to judge Star and her choices throughout the film. She has a tendency to willingly put herself into highly questionable situations. The first time I watched, it gave me a bit of anxiety because I constantly expected the worst to happen, like her getting raped or killed by some creepy trucker or a gang of drunken cowboys. But that moment, fortunately for her and the viewer, never comes. And the more I’ve watched the film, the more I’ve come to appreciate her as a character. I realized at some point that whatever happens along her journey, it will probably be the peak of excitement she has experienced in her life. Her naivete sends her chasing after adventure and romance, and I’ve grown to find a beauty in it instead of writing her off or judging her. Where she goes as she throws herself head first into the unknown ends up being way better than where she comes from.

The Magazine Kids

American-Honey-TIFF-2016

Similar to Star, I couldn’t help but judge and dislike the crew of misfits that made up the magazine sales team. Initially, I found most of them to be obnoxious and immature (their shameless use of the n-word was pretty unsettling, but not surprising), but I’ve grown to appreciate those qualities instead of writing them off. We aren’t given much insight into any of their individual backstories, but we do get the sense that the idea of freedom that this job grants them is an ideal lifestyle for all of them. They all seem to fit perfectly in with each other, like a puzzle made up of wild and free youth, and it becomes admirable when viewed with an open mind.

Ignorance is definitely blissful, and this team encapsulates just that. While the scenic shots throughout the movie captures parts of an American wasteland in decay, their positive vibes and energy comes off as untouchable. It’s an electric feeling that is clearly felt by Star as she is first thrown and accepted into the group, and beautifully portrayed by the directors choice in casting and directing. The entire film has a documentary-style feel to it, which is made even more authentic by the choice to cast regularly people rather than seasoned actors. Most of the dialogue in the film, especially from the crew, feels unscripted and spontaneous, as if the director allowed them to tell their own stories. Director Andrea Arnold actually hit the road herself before shooting began and cast many of the films cast by finding real young people leading lives similar to that which the film depicts. The film’s lead was actually found on a beach in Texas, never having acted before, and her last words to Arnold before taking off to film was, “If this is a porn or you try to kill me, I will kill you.” These choices gives the film and its cast a level of authenticity that is hard to come by in film making, and its execution is definitely memorable.

Jake & the Wild Ones

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Shia LeBeouf is a great actor, and this film is a clear demonstration of that. Alongside Riley Keough, who plays Krystal, he is the only other seasoned actor cast for the film, yet somehow, both manage to fit right in with the story and other characters without breaking the mold of authenticity that was clearly intended for the film. His character is fascinating because he blurs the lines between being charming and confident and being gross and unlikable. His job as “business manager” and top “power seller” is to recruit new sales members and train them. Unlike the other sales members, who craft a false narrative in an attempt to sell themselves before trying to land a magazine sale, he makes his narrative up as he goes, willing to say and do whatever he thinks the other person wants to hear. This gives a particularly individual characteristic to each sale, and it’s shown that he is very good at what he does. His sale strategy seems to be a loose metaphor for his strategy for picking new sales members, particularly young women. Throughout the film, we watch Star struggle with the reality that Jake’s “pitch” to her may not be particular to just her as she would like to believe.

At first, I read some of the subtle scenes used to demonstrate aspects of his character as him being a creep, possibly preying on young girls. But the more I analyze it, while that interpretation definitely remains up for discussion, I think his story is a bit more complicated then that. As the two eldest members of the crew, Jake and Krystal seem to be holding on for dear life to the youthful wildness and freedom that the younger crew embodies naturally. As confident as he comes off when talking with Star, there are scenes where he seems more insecure and less sure of himself than he would allow anyone else to believe. He also seems to crave control and power, and when those things fall apart, he losses it. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of depth to his character, but there are definitely layers that are worth contemplating more into.

Krystal Clear

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Riley Keough plays Krystal, the closest thing to a villain or antagonist that this movie comes to. She comes off a bit like Cruella Deville, lusting after money and power, and making it a point to demonstrate said power to those beneath her. Every interaction between her and Star, maybe with the exception of their first, she goes out of her way to put her in her place. It’s a bit unsettling at times because it’s never really made clear exactly what her motives are – it just seems that she sees Star overzealous about the prospects of a relationship with Jake and she feels she needs to knock her down a peg. Or maybe she just sees them two as a threat to her making money? Personally, I get the sense that it’s more than just about money, but much like a lot of other aspects of the film and its characters, it only presents us with so much to think on.

One scene that I never noticed until very recently was the look on her face as she is dropping the female members of the sales team off with the oil workers. One moment they are blasting music from the van, dancing in unison, and the next Krystal has a clear scowl on her face as she gathers all the girls bags, throws them in the dirt and drives away without them. It’s made me reevaluate her scenes in the movie, as her expression and dialogue tell more than they actually give viewers. She has a clear and growing disdain for Star throughout the movie which

Final Thoughts

This movie is not for everyone. I can see more people having my initial reaction to the movie (simply writing off the plot and characters as dumb kids that listen to shitty music, with no future or dreams of one) or struggling to relate to the plot and characters in any way. But this movie has more layers than an onion. EVERY shot, piece of dialogue and even soundtrack choices are well thought out, and contains some sort of underlying thought, idea or message. There is so much to think about and analyze while successfully not coming off as such.

After writing this, I found other analysis that I felt presented either interesting perspectives or concepts that I missed out on. A review at Another Gaze presents ideas from a feminist perspective, which points out the significance of casting Star and other women portrayed in the “road movie” genre, and some of the more toxic aspects of the male characters the film presents. A Variety and New Yorker  reviews decided to focus more on analyzing what the film says about this generation and what it is like to be young and aimless. And the film’s director has given a few interviews, such as this one with NPR, where she talks more about her intentions with certain choices, and listening to her tell the story on how it all came together is almost as engrossing as the film itself; it helps give more context to certain scenes and elements of the film that may help you appreciate it in a whole new way.

I  feel I’ve grown fond of it because I spent a few years of my mid 20s aimlessly wandering around, living a nomadic lifestyle, hitch hiking and sleeping outside, driven by an obsession with Kerouac and a lust for adventure and an idea what I thought of as freedom. I didn’t have things figured out, nor was a super inclined to. I cursed, drank and smoked a lot and hung out around kids very similar to those in the film. At some point, as I began to work more and build a more structured and “safe” life for myself, I think I’ve begun to forget what it’s like to be young and dumb; the bliss that comes with not having much of a direction, yet not finding anything wrong with that. I miss those days when I thought a lot less about the worst that could happen, and fixated more on the possibility that there was something worth chasing after, even if it’s hidden in the unknown.

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