Usually when we see the American underclass depicted on screen, it’s either as a punchline, or a form of isn’t it just so sad poverty porn. That’s partly why American Honey feels so fresh — a clear-eyed depiction of working class dysfunction and jailbait sexuality that neither ridicules, pities, nor exploits its subjects for cheap redemption. Redemption is fleeting and freedom comes with a catch in writer/director Andrea Arnold’s (Fish Tank, Wuther Heights) trailer trash road epic, which explores what it means to be white trash in America, and the creep sexuality underpinning it all.
Sasha Lane plays Star, a sort of pouty-lipped, polyethnic tattooed trailer ingenue with grody dreads who we meet while she’s dumpster diving with her tow-headed (half?) siblings. She gets waylaid on the way home to deposit her rapidly-defrosting dumpster chicken by a gang of what look to be uncouth carnival gypsies, who are literally dancing on the cash registers at Target at the time, to the tune of Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” Star finds herself captivated by one of them, who introduces himself as Jake (Shia LaBeouf in a dirty braid), a smooth-talking, molesty combination of Frank Abignale from Catch Me If You Can and Shifty Shellshock from Crazytown.
Jake immediately bulldozes Star’s barriers and better judgment (those were there for a good reason, Star), stealing a kiss and inviting her to join his gang of scumpunk pranksters at the Motel 6 in Kansas City, for a cross-country magazine-selling trip. Wait, what? Yeah. It doesn’t sound like the most attractive of offers, especially coming from a sweaty guy in suspenders who looks like he smokes meth out of a lightbulb. Star turns him down at first, but as soon as she returns to her above-ground nightmare pool of a home life, it starts to dawn on her how much she could use an escape from her drunken, sexually abusive father and feral siblings, the younger of which keeps stabbing the shrink-wrapped chicken on the floor of the kitchen, shouting “This chicken has no eggs!” like some grotesque backwoods Bosch painting made real.
So off we go. Turns out, Jake belongs to a gang of teen and post-teen runaways led by Krystal (Riley Keough), a delightful Glengarry Glen Ross-by-way-of-Teen Mom combination of crass capitalism and corrupted sexuality. She dresses her crew, determining which outfits will best elicit sympathy, pumps them full of salesy motivation, then drops them off in wealthy neighborhoods to SELL SELL SELL! What a world, where society’s losers sell their own poverty back to the guilt-ridden winners. As Krystal and Jake (Krystal’s best salesman) explain, they aren’t selling magazines, but peace of mind.
Oh, and sex. Creepy sexuality is the foundation of both Krystal’s enterprise and Andrea Arnold’s movie. Krystal tells Star, “You’re pure American honey just like me.”
Which is to say, a nymphet, in possession of a valuable (if rapidly depreciating) asset, if only she can monetize it. Star’s sexuality — universally irresistible to creeps, be they Cadillac cowboys in Nebraska or oil dogs in South Dakota — is the only thing she owns of any value, using it to manipulate people her only relevant work experience. This is the lurid portrait Arnold paints of the sexually abused and abandoned — not maudlin nor celebratory, just knowing. Just like Hesher understood that the corollary to grief and feeling like nothing matters is gleeful nihilism, American Honey understands that the corollary to having nothing and no one is owing nothing to no one and a certain kind of freedom (free to starve and maybe get stabbed by a rapey truck driver, sure, but freedom still).
Star and Krystal eventually find themselves locked in a kind of baby mama battle royale over who gets to have stinky unsafe sex with this new snaggle toothed homeless incarnation of Shia LeBeouf††. (Spoiler alert, they both do.) In one poignant scene, alpha skank Krystal, clad only in a Confederate flag stripper bikini two sizes too small, dresses down Star in a seedy motel room for not selling enough magazines. All the while, a silent Jake cowers at knee level, applying lotion to her naked thighs like a Roman slave. (An unforgettable image that, if I were their marketing guy, would go on the poster.) It’s tough to pull off sad, sexy, smart, and funny at the same time, but American Honey does it.
What does it mean to be white trash in America? As American Honey accurately depicts, it means to be largely rootless, having severed ties to your blood family (because of death, drug abuse, and/or incest) and in search of a new tribe, gravitating towards unhealthy relationships and dangerous situations with the kind of screwed up radar only a chaotic childhood can provide. I met people like the characters in American Honey growing up in the Central Valley (LaBeouf’s character being from Bakersfield was a nice touch) and especially shooting interviews at the Gathering of the Juggalos, and a lot of American Honey felt so authentic that I could forget it’s not a documentary.
Which, if you’re not exactly thrilled to be around these kinds of people, might not always be a good thing. (I find them fascinating, but a lot of people understandably find them repellent.) The characters, who look so stinky you can practically smell it through the screen, all converse in this loopy patois of cusswords, rap lyrics, second-hand capitalist self-help and new agey aphorism, and only ever seem to make sense when they’re singing along to the coarsest mumble rap and schmaltziest pop country songs. Which in American Honey is pretty much all the damned time. Imagine the “Tiny Dancer” sing-along scene from Almost Famous set to a Teen Mom subject’s iPhone playlist, and you’re on the right track. That probably accounts for at least 20 minutes worth of American Honey. The characters are inarticulate, obnoxious, and blissfully unaware of their own corniness, but they feel scarily accurate†.
I realize, this movie may be a tough sell. Trust me, when I got off a six-hour red eye the last thing I wanted to do was go straight into a nearly three-hour movie starring Shia LaBeouf and some mumbly hillbillies. Surely it’d be possible to cut 20 minutes or so (there are many times we get almost a full song when 20 seconds or so would do), but if American Honey could win me over at its current length, it can win over anyone.
I’m instantly skeptical of anything calling itself “American _____,” since draping things with the flag and appropriating them as Americana has become both fashionable and a meaningless cliché (there’s nothing more American than a guy who’s never left looking at a universal truth and saying “only in America!”). In American Honey it feels earned. Watching it reminded me of being at the Gathering of the Juggalos, where, talking to runaways and recovering addicts and witnessing a peculiar mish-mash of gangster rap, pro wrestling, horror movies, and up-from-your-bootstraps Christian values, I was struck by the idea that what I was witnessing was true Americana. It’s easy to imagine an even bigger outsider than me like Andrea Arnold (she’s British) becoming even more obsessed. How could so thoroughly odd and idiosyncratic a subculture exist anywhere else, without such specific influences?
Between attending the Gathering, reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (a memoir of his Appalachian upbringing) recently, and now watching American Honey, it feels like we’re overdue for an attempt to understand some of the forces of working class white dysfunction. Yes, these are your Trump voters, your rust belt refugees, abandoned by globalization and left to marinate in opiate addiction, seasoned to taste with sexual abuse. I can understand wanting to avoid them like we normally do, because of their coarse vernacular, poor grooming, and terrible taste in music, but might I suggest it’s worth trying to understand why they’re so pissed off?
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
†With the exception of one scene, where a little girl in a grimy heroin house in Nebraska tells Star her favorite song is “I Kill Children” by the Dead Kennedys. Somehow I doubt Mountain Dew-drinking trailer park 10-year-olds are big into Bay Area punk rock from the ’70s. It was about the only sour note, though it did ring egregiously false.
††Probably his best, and stinkiest-looking (which is really saying something) performance to date. Jake feels like he captures Shia LaBeouf’s essence better than any character before.