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).