The road movie, particularly the American road movie, is a genre with a long and rich heritage. Its protagonists are almost always male. The open road is a symbol of mobility and the pursuit of freedom, two luxuries not historically afforded women on or off screen, which is why women-led road movies continue to push boundaries. Somewhat depressingly, Thelma and Louise is almost as unusual in this regard today as it was in 1991. Twenty five years later, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey does something to redress that balance.
And much like Ridley Scott’s film, American Honey opens on an unhappy woman of the house, trodden into the dirt by a not-too-closely-examined asshole who, again like in Thelma and Louise, is really no more than a cardboard cut-out of masculine oppression, replete with belches and beer cans. Star, 18 years old and caring for two children, is struggling against proper, squalid poverty: fishing in hot dumpsters for raw chicken, before she falls in with a ‘mag crew’: a group of disenfranchised young people who travel the country in a van, selling magazine subscriptions. The film then follows her as she heads out on the highway and finds her footing in this new micro-society. And the film really follows her: the focus is tight on Star throughout, as tight as it was on Mia in Fish Tank, Arnold’s 2009 feature, with the director’s characteristic lack of sentimentality. The aim of the game for this crew is simple: make money and generally be as youthful as possible, which in this world involves sex, loud music, driving fast and literal dick waving. Yes, one character physically gets his dick out of his trousers to wave it about on more than one occasion. Frankly, they’re all a bit irritating at first, but the audience does eventually settle into their company.
Star’s escape from her desperate domestic situation hinges on an invitation from a stranger in the form of mag crew member Jake, played by Shia LaBoeuf dressed like a yuppy who’s been lost in the woods for a week. Male Bullshit alarm bells ring madly as Jake chats up Star, insisting that she “wants him” and will succumb to his schtick and follow him to Kansas City. Which she does. But as the gang wend their way further along the film’s anonymous highways the power dynamics come into clearer focus. The real ring-leader here is not Jake but Krystal, played by Riley Keough resplendently tacky in a confederate flag bikini. The mag crew is, in fact, a matriarchy whose queen is ruthlessly mercantile, sexually dominant and highly to-be-feared by all comers. And this unchallenged structure of the group is what prevents American Honey being a clean cut “bad boy leads good girl astray” narrative. Star is sucked in by the perceived glamour of the crew, and does come to fall for Jake, but repeatedly proves herself to be the protagonist in her own life, through her decisions to depart from the rules of the crew, and diverge from their control. Towards the end of the film, Star finds herself sitting in the passenger seat of a long-haul truck whose driver asks her, with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dream Baby Dream’ murmuring over the stereo (yes, really), whether she has any dreams herself. Star’s reply is that “nobody’s ever asked me that before”, and this ultimately is what the film is concerned with: a young woman interrogating for the first time what it is she actually wants for herself, and getting it wrong along the way. It turns out that Star’s dream is straight out of Steinbeck: to live off the fat of the land in a trailer all of her own. The lengths to which she is willing to go to realise that dream come to include prostitution in a scene that succinctly highlights the grim reality attached to the misogynistic rap lyrics that the crew merrily sing along to in the van.
The film’s near constant hip-hop soundtrack is, I suppose, primarily there to authenticate the youth culture that Arnold wants to capture. Arnold has spoken in interviews about the importance of this authenticity to her vision for the film: bar LaBeouf and Keough, the entire cast was amateur, plucked by Arnold from parking lots, beaches and state fairs up and down the country. Many American young people do, of course, listen to hip-hop and do so unreflectively, without tuning into the racial or gendered subtext of the words themselves. However, while it might be consistent with reality for the mag crew members not to reflect on issues of, for instance, race, it does jar that the film itself leaves race almost entirely unexamined. Star is the only non-white member of the crew, and indeed the only non-white character with whom they come into any meaningful contact. This is a film exclusively about white America, despite revolving around a young black woman in dreadlocks, and that central juxtaposition is never addressed, for reasons unclear.
American Honey looks great, though. Arnold’s inter-city mid-West is a gaping, sun-baked landscape that forms a gorgeously bleak backdrop to the film’s action, throwing into sharp relief both the clipped hedge perfection of middle-American wealth and the claustrophobia of working class neighbourhoods that the crew encounter in turn along their way. This forms the backbone of the plot structure, too: weaving between areas representing these two ends of the social spectrum. It’s baggy in the way of many road movies, loosely structured around set pieces rather than hugging close to a linear narrative, but these set pieces are strong enough to carry the film: Star being picked up in the car by three cowboys in pristinely white Stetsons, drumming up business by dancing for oil-field workers and so on.
The imagery is, unfortunately, often ham-fisted. Trapped animals appear in their dozens, Jake is metaphorically established as a lone wolf several times over and Star is shown saving the life of not one but two stricken wasps. The music is also too often overly pointed: Star and Jake fall for each other in a strip mall supermarket as Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love in a Hopeless Place’ blares over the sound system. Their love story is at least believable, and gives rise to the only on-screen instance I have ever seen of someone pulling out their tampon before sex, a fairly run-of-the-mill part of being a woman in possession of a body that was considered so filthy by the makers of Fifty Shades of Grey that it was cut from their film before shooting even began.
American Honey could, admittedly, have used more than a few cuts itself, but you can see why Arnold didn’t: this is a film about a journey, physical and figurative, without a destination and could never have been a tight 90 minutes. That said, Arnold’s sparing use of humour, including touches like a nine-year-old girl sweetly singing Dead Kennedy’s ‘I Kill Children’, prevents the film from dragging too much. The extended length does also allow for us to see the repeating cycles of euphoria and despair that come to characterise Star’s life on the road, a cycle that the film’s ending implies could continue indefinitely.
The trailer makes American Honey look like a loud, grating movie aimed at pimpled Kerouac acolytes and people who never quite got over Skins, and it isn’t that, thank goodness. Women out on the road are figures that do not yet exist in great numbers in popular culture. I suppose the lead characters in Eat, Pray, Love or 2014’s Wild might arguably come under this umbrella, but this is still a pretty barren landscape: men go on adventures, not women. Aside from being beautifully shot and emotionally real, American Honey deserves to be remembered as a film that challenges this norm.