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I Feel Like I’m Fucking America: Andrea Arnold’s American Honey

by

“I feel like I’m fucking America.” These words are shouted with ecstasy by the young girl Star (played by the then non-actress Sasha Lane in her first acting role) in Andrea Arnold’s film American Honey (2016). In this pivotal scene, Star is standing up in a stolen Cadillac convertible while her lover Jake drives into the fading sun. It is the scene that is featured on the movie poster on which Star herself looks like a flag blowing in the wind, and it’s a scene that lies at the heart of this film. Jake just robbed a group of rich cowboys at gunpoint while Star was trying to sell them magazines, and the couple escapes into the sunset in the stolen car in which the two would have sex for the first time. Yeah, this whole scene is classic American (as seen in the movies), and Star’s words are double, even triple edged. High on tequila, love, and adrenaline, Star feels like she IS America speeding down the road free as a bird in a stolen Cadillac; she also feels like she is “fucking” America as in getting as intimate with it and high on it as she can through the power of guns, cash, and cars; and she feels like she is “fucking” America over, which it deserves for fucking her and so many young people like her over. American Honey is all about what it feels like to feel like fucking America, and that is a complex picture.

The multiple meanings of Star’s words underscore the many tensions playing inside this film, inside America, and inside the broader global market of capital, a system that feeds on the dreams of the underdogs and turns them into poison for profit. A British director whose films have always focused on class, otherness, yearning, and the tension between nature and the corruption of capital, Arnold transposes her usual themes from the UK to the American landscape with explosive life and power in American Honey. She uses the simplicity of the American Dream to expose the reality of the American nightmare. The lyrics by the Lady Antebellum song on which the film was titled say, “nothing sweeter than American Honey”, but they also could read “nothing is as false.” Arnold shows the dark side of that honey while never forfeiting the flipside of hope that lies within the depths of the natural human spirit. She shows that dreams based on the acquisition of capital are false and exploitive lies that corrupt authentic human yearning and displace it onto acquisition of money and things rather than love and natural spirit. But she also shows the fragile humans who fall prey to this system as near angelic even when they are beating each other bloody for sport.

I watched this film when it was first released in 2016 (after being filmed in 2015), and I wondered if this tale of young people trapped by their class in a world where they only see money as a way out would translate to the new post-Trump economic landscape. It absolutely does because the issues that Arnold is grappling with in her film are not locked into a specific topical timeframe. They are issues that have plagued the underclass since capitalism took over their lives. In American Honey, Arnold shows class stratification in America through the lens of young people. Their struggles within a class system of haves and have nots is as economically real as it is in Britain, a fact that many Americans refuse to acknowledge. The denial of class structures in America largely put a man like Trump in the White House because people who have nothing want to believe they can become someone like Donald Trump even though there isn’t a chance in hell they ever will. The film was shot in 2015, long before the escalation of the 2016 presidential election. It was shot in middle America, in the states of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma – all states that Trump would win. But Arnold didn’t know any of this when she was filming, yet she references Trump in an early scene when one of the lead characters, Jake (played by Shia LaBoef – one of the only two “real” actors in the film) laughs at the way he is “dressed for success” and asks if he looks like Donald Trump, referrring Trump as some kind of super idol of business success and emblem of the American Dream, but also an indicator of how diseased that dream is. The fact that Trump is referenced outside the context of politics and before the election doesn’t limit the film to this specific time but instead shows the fluidity with which capitalism has dominated the American landscape since its origins when Southern landowners profited off slavery.

Arnold’s films are both anchored in place and time and beyond their limits. The struggles she confronts are universal. She takes the nature versus nurture argument, and shows that it’s more about nature versus capital. The young people in her films come from the lower classes. They need. They yearn. Yet they are entirely lacking in nurture. Their parents are abusive or absent, and they largely have to parent themselves. They end up displacing their need onto capital and the hopes that money will replace what they never had. In American Honey, Arnold took the facts that she learned about “mag crews” in a 2007 New York Times article called For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews and created a fictional account of real exploitation of youth for profit.

She uses largely non-actors, all natural light, and facts based on investigative journalism. Combined, these approaches infuse the film with a poetic naturalism, a documentary realism that immerses us completely into the fast-paced life of hungry kids searching for their pot of gold or at least a home. The article details the brutal lives of youths recruited by mag crews who use those who have nothing to sell magazines that may or may not exist and who are forced to turn almost all (and in some cases all) their earnings to the crew leaders who are pimps of capitalism. The mag crews capitalize on the down-and-out and often operate like prostitution rackets where young people are thrown to the wolves to make a buck for the boss by selling themselves in the guise of selling magazines. It’s an ugly business, and it translates to a universal metaphor for the exploits of capitalist bosses who use the vulnerable to line their pockets. This is nothing new – to Andrea Arnold, to her British home, to America, to the world, or to history. But Arnold brings this corrupt system to life through a Romantic lens filtered through naturalism as economically brutal as a Dickens novel set in Walmart.

Excerpt from the 2007 New York Times article on the kids working for mag crews:

. . . since many sellers were runaways or high school dropouts or were from dysfunctional families or poor neighborhoods, they had fewer options and were reluctant to report mistreatment or leave.

Many former sellers also said they kept quiet about problems out of fear of violence against them or those they left behind.

Sellers reported having adopted fake names upon joining a crew, being beaten if they attracted police attention and receiving mail sent from home only after it was opened by the company’s central office. “What happens on crew, stays on crew” was a common refrain.

This sounds an awful lot like indentured servitude where kids work for free in the hopes that they will be transported out of poverty and/or abuse only to find that they are trapped by another abuser – the boss/pimp who will use and beat them for profit.

This also sounds very dangerous, and American Honey builds on the sense of danger to an explosive pitch. In every scene – whether its kids gathered in a parking lot before hitting the road, sleeping in dark motel rooms, walking through wealthy suburban streets, climbing into strangers’ cars, or knocking on strangers’ doors – is fraught with a sense of danger lurking at every turn. This pressing sense of danger makes us care about and want to protect the kids. It also creates a crushing pressure, so that even when the kids gather to celebrate, it feels dangerous. In the middle of all that danger is Star, the central character, who never leaves the camera’s eye. In a sense, we become Star by being with her every minute of the film as Arnold’s longtime cinematographer Robbie Ryan hand holds the camera and tracks Star’s every movement. The camera is in the dumpster with Star when the movie opens, the van when Star goes out on the road in the mag crew, and in the trucks Star climbs into with strangers. We can’t help but become attached because the camera attaches us to her.

We first meet Star in the opening scene when she is dumpster diving for food with what appears to be her young step brother. Foraging through bags of other people’s garbage, Star looks both natural and wild. She grabs a whole chicken in victory and shouts “I found a chicken!” as if she just shot an elk in the wild. She tosses the chicken to a young boy and instructs him to hold his hands out and catch it. The boy drops it onto the pavement, and the camera holds on the chicken lying on asphalt leaking blood and juice all over the black top in a slimy pool. Star’s foraging and victorious find seem both natural and an abomination. She is doing what she needs to survive in the wild landscape of her life of poverty, but nothing about it is right even though we can hear birds chirping in the distance. This is the beauty and brilliance of the film. It is full of contradictions. It is beautifully abominable, horrifically tender, and poetically real all at once. It paints a very real and true picture that is often devastating, but inside the devastation there is always a glimmer of hope. That hope shows up in Robbie Ryan’s sublime capture of sunlight flaring through trees, the sounds and sights of nature persevering (ants, bees, flies) in the unnatural world of money and exploitation, and in Star’s vibrant wild vitality that never wanes even in the ugliest of places.

Star first sees the mag crew romping in a Walmart parking lot. She follows them into the store, where the entire gang of young people breakout dancing to Rhianna’s We Found Love in a Hopeless Place. In this seemingly anarchistic yet connect group of wild young dancers, Star sees a way out. She sees hope. But we learn they are not anarchists. They are lost souls who have been recruited to sell magazines for the Mag Crew leader Krystal (played with ferociously understated power by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keoug). Certainly Arnold’s casting of Keoug was completely intentional. It doesn’t get more American than Elvis, and The King is an iconic American rags-to-riches Southern myth. In a pivotal scene in the film, Krystal calls Star to her motel room. When Star walks in, Krystal is wearing nothing but a Confederate flag bikini, a sign that she is not only “American Honey” but also most likely racist. In this scene, Krystal exerts her power over Star and Jake (both who are not white but some undetermined dark “other”) by making Jake apply fake tan cream to her legs while Star watches. This is another odd conundrum. The Confederate Texan Krystal makes Jake make her darker while she imposes her white superiority on him and Star.

When Star interviews to be on the mag crew, Krystal’s first and most important question is: “Got anyone who’s gonna miss you?” If the answer is no, which Star’s “Not really” is, then she’s in. Krystal recruits No Ones – young people who belong nowhere and have no one –, and Arnold films them in a world that few people see, but is very real nonetheless. In fact, the world we see in the film is the real world. Not only is it inspired by the NYT article, but all but two of the dozens of people who appear in the film are non-actors recruited through street casting from a Walmart parking lot in Florida. Arnold found Sasha Lane on a beach in Florida where porn directors scouted for new meat, but the rest of the cast (except LeBeof and Keuog) were recruited during a period of days when the film crew parked lawn chairs in a Walmart parking lot and observed the young people passing through. In other words, the cast members were recruited similarly to the kids recruited to mag crews, except Arnold kept everything transparent, legal, and ethical. And the kids got paid.

The tension in the film hinges on the tension between the natural primal state of humans and the unnatural artifice and exploitation of capital and money. Casting non-actors brings this tension to a phenomenal tangible forefront. The majority of the film is shot in the confines of the van that transports the kids from town to town to sell magazines. The camera is literally in the van with them, and the van feels as claustrophobic as the socio-economic system that has beaten these young people down. The confines of van feel like the constraints of the market. Yet these scenes, as are all scenes in the film, aren’t just dark portrayals of an inescapable claustrophobic economic condition. Even with little room to live or air to breathe, the kids burst with life. The van’s speakers are always pulsing with loud music, and the crew maintains a kind of natural tribal connection through song and libations. As they are carted about across middle America to sell magazines that may or may not exist, the crew sings along to all variety of music while also sharing weed and booze. They are tattooed, messy, and wild, as if they came from some dark recess of a deeply buried American forest. But they are also trapped animals.

In most of the scenes with the crew, Arnold just let them be themselves, so the singing, joking, ribbing and ranting is authentic because it really is them just being them. To add another layer of experiential authenticity, Arnold did not let the cast know where they were going next on the “road trip.” When they hit the wealthy neighborhoods of Kansas City, these kids had never seen wealth like that before, so their responses are completely natural. This is a brilliant way of unveiling class differentiation in America. Working both as documentary and fiction, we experience the kids’ awe over such things as garish water fountains and horse sculptures on front lawns, things that were not part of the world the kids came from, and probably will never be part of the world they are going to. Yet, these young people have been so deprived experientially and economically that they experience a kind of ecstasy just seeing the shiny tall buildings that move the money they will never have.

The music selection is also deliberate and laden with the messages that Arnold delivers in the film. The soundtrack is roughly equally split between rap/hip-hop and white country music, reflecting two sides of America that normally represent the underdog. The videos that accompany the music almost all show people struggling with economic desperation and coming to terms with their class while also trying to get on top of a game they will never win. Country songs like Steve Earl’s Copperhead Road and Sam Hunt’s Take Your Time and the videos that go with them take on lower class white America, its dreams, sacrifices and realities. Rap songs and their official videos like Kevin Gates’ Out of the Mud and E40’s Choices show the poor black side of America where the idea that money can buy a way out dominates the songs with racial reality looming in the background in the form of gutted housing projects. (Arnold grew up in a council estate – the equivalent of American housing projects – in the UK.) In other words, the soundtrack is an extension of the universal themes the movie explores: money versus nature; the constrictions of class which extends to race; yearning for dreams which seem just out of reach from the limited number of dollar bills in one’s wallet.

The music videos from the soundtrack also often reflect the aesthetics of Arnold’s film. Many use backlighting and the flare of the sun to reflect dreams and the possibility of another world. Some of the details are quite literal references. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” recites in incantation the verse “We found love in a hopeless place” which is what all these kids want and believe in, but they often replace love with money while still holding onto each other for a sense of love. In one scene in “We Found Love,” the black Rihanna wears an American flag bikini in direct opposition to Confederate bikini that the very white and southern Krystal wears in Arnold’s film. In other words, the music choices are no accident. Many songs reflect the music the kids actually wanted to listen to (serving as an extension of their real voices). On the other hand the lyrics and the videos are often in direct conversation with the content of the film.

Interestingly the one song that is not grounded in realism (though it tries) and is not a direct ode to the downtrodden is the song for which the film is titled: Lady Antebellum’s American Honey. The title song doesn’t actually appear until near the film’s end, which makes sense because the song is a romantic vision, escapism, after we have been on a long grueling road trip with the mag crew. The song shows a tension between the natural and unnatural world, but it mostly idealizes a utopian vision of America as authentic and pure (an image often perpetuated by the American South). This vision can never truly be attained because America has never truly been authentic and pure, nor has any other culture under capitalism. The song, like the movie, is a lyrical ode to the tension between the American Dream and American Reality, but it is mostly a white washed version. The white glow of this song has little bearing on the dirty mag crew. Given that the primary character in the film – Star – is other than white (almost black . . . or half-breed), clearly American Honey never will really be her reality, at least on a surface level. Also, the phrase is introduced to us by Krystal, the Confederate bikini wearing leader and exploiter. When she learns that Star is from Texas like her, she says that they are both American Honey. But honey, typically means blonde and white, and that is not Star. American Honey is not her Texas.

Still, even though the song doesn’t ring true unless you scrape through all the surface and go back to nature, somehow Star is so natural that even this white washed version of America can be brought to life through Star’s eyes. Because Star is true. She is not a lie and does not buy the lie of capitalism. When Krystal calls her to task for decreasing Jake’s profits, Star says she doesn’t like the lies. We learn that the entire business is based on lies and that the mag crew succeeds by selling untrue visions of themselves. Crew members are told that people don’t want to buy magazines, but they want to buy the kids. So they make up stories trying to be something that people want to buy more than the magazines themselves. They say that their dads were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, that they are recovering from drugs, or that they are part of a Baptist church or a college fundraising drive to build a cafeteria, none of which is true. Ironically all these kids are in need and have come from dire straits, but they have to tell lies to sell themselves. Through the falsehood and selling of self, the transaction becomes a kind of act of prostitution, and the world of product sales is shown as a world of lies and deception. The kids are deceived. The people they sell to are deceived. And it all rings hollow.

There’s a wild, wild whisper
Blowin’ in the wind
Callin’ out my name like a long lost friend
Oh I miss those days as the years go by
Oh nothing’s sweeter than summertime
And American honey
– from Lady Antebellum, American Honey

These lyrics do seem whitewashed and ring of a romanticized view of America through a white lens, but interestingly, the non-white Star is the character in the film who somehow realizes the “wild whisper” even if she is poor and without many options. Her spiritual core rings with the “wild whisper,” and she is the “blowing wind.” She runs through streets like a wild thing, fucks like pure animal, and she believes in love and humanity over money and lies. Ultimately her connection to true nature (both inside and outside) gives her the escape she will never find selling magazines made of ether. Even in the most fraught scenes, such as one when she is drinking tequila with a trio of rich white cowboys, Star pauses to save a honey bee from a swimming pool. When she insists on eating the worm at the bottom of the bottle, the act is more about consuming wild nature than getting high.

When she has sex with Jake, birds sing and wind blows through trees splintered with kaleidoscopic sunrays. The car they are in is covered with bugs crawling wild. As the sun sets, the crickets take over. When she is in motels and abandoned houses, Star saves flies and bees trapped by windows. In one scene when she flees the crew, she comes face to face with a bear who sniffs at Star’s face and then goes on its way. In her final transaction, she reverts to her true primal self – the nurturer and caregiver. She does not sell magazines but instead buys food for dirt poor children living with an addict mother. In this act, she is caring for the kids but also re-mothering herself.

Get caught in the race
Of this crazy life
Tryin’ to be everything can make you lose your mind
I just wanna go back in time
To American honey, yea
– from Lady Antebellum American Honey

Star does get caught in the race that could make her lose her mind, but she keeps one foot anchored in her natural self even when she is trapped in a place of total economic corruption. The one successful magazine sale Star has on film occurs with a truck driver from a truck stop. She steps into that truck, and we expect the worst. We know what happens to young girls alone with truck drivers. Instead of anything horrifying, the two start to talk. The man talks about his wife and kids. Star mentions that her mom is dead. The driver asks, “Cancer?” She simply answers, “No, meth.” And we know it’s true. She does not grab the cancer hook and exploit it for all its worth. She and the truck driver end up driving around singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s Dream Baby Dream.

We gotta keep the fire burning
Come on, we gotta keep the fire burning
Come on, we gotta keep the fire burning
Come on and dream baby dream

Come open up your heart
Come on and open up your heart
Come on and open up your heart
Come on dream on, dream baby dream
from Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream”

The scene is beautiful and tender. A scene that started fraught with tension and danger turns into a quietly euphoric moment of shared song. Star ends up safe and with sales tickets and cash in hand. She of course will turn her earnings over to Krystal, and the reality of her position quietly seeps in when she gets out of the truck and sees young cattle loaded in jail-like crates being hauled off to slaughter. As she runs from the truck stop, she realizes she’s running through a bog of blood, an obvious yet powerful metaphor for the exchange of life for money and the prison of capital for those who fall prey to it, those like the kids in the mag crew. By the time this song comes into the film, we have already seen so many broken dreams and people, so much sadness on the faces of the kids.

The dreams turn to nightmares pretty quickly. The next scene with Star and a man in a truck is far from a dream. The fire that’s burning is from an oil rig, a frightful flame licking the night like a tongue shooting up from hell. Star is paid not to open her heart like in the Springsteen song, but to open her legs. She does, and it is utterly heartbreaking.

The weaving of the songs and the scenes is so tight that it gives the film momentum while also swinging us back and forth between glimmers of hope and painfully real shots of despair, just like the film swings back and forth between the claustrophobia of the van and motels and the magical prism of nature that surrounds the crew.

The film ends with the mag crew circling like banshees around a bonfire a ritual celebration. In a quiet moment Jake recognizes that he will forever be trapped in the life of the crew while he also concedes to and respects Star’s intuitive wild nature. He slips a turtle in her hands and returns to the fire with the rest of the crew.

Star walks to the shore alone and sets the turtle free into the lake. She watches it swim off and then quietly walks out into the lake following the turtle and freeing herself. She submerges herself in the lake and gives into her primal self, into a place beyond sales and dollars. When she emerges from beneath the lake’s surface, nature has taken over. Crickets and soft breezes have replaced the cacophony of the crew. The kids are gone. The van is gone. The noise of capital and desperation is gone, and the film closes on Star’s profile staring silently into a twilight sky. Is she dead or more alive than ever? Arnold doesn’t answer that for us, and that’s what makes the scene and ending so powerful. It leaves us with questions we should be asking about the constraints of capital on our true selves. About what it means to live, what it takes to live, and where those who have nothing and no one can go when there is nowhere to go.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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