Few ideas are as malleable and fluid as the American Dream. It means many different things to many different people, but the Platonic idea of the American Dream always centers on two things: money and success. One may follow the other, but not necessarily so.
Star (20-year-old newcomer Sasha Lane) is obviously seeking money — she has none — but what she really wants is the thrill of success and the comfort of inclusion. We don’t know much about Star’s upbringing, save for a smattering of uncomfortable suggestions: Star is dirt poor and raising her brother and sister while a man she calls “Daddy” sexual abuses her. But all of that melts away the second she lays eyes on Jake (Shia LeBeouf) at the local K-Mart, visually echoing Dante’s sentiments when he first lays eyes on the young Beatrice in Vita Nova: “Here is a God stronger than I who comes to rule over me.”
Jake is equally enchanted by the young and beautiful Star and begins to dance on the checkout counter to Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” The act gets him and his rambunctious posse tossed out of the store, but the seduction works and Star pursues Jake out into the parking lot. He offers to take her away and Star can’t resist. She returns her brother and sister to their intoxicated mother and tracks Jake down to the motel where he is staying with a group of ragtag rejects led by a scantily clad and sexually promiscuous, Krystal (Riley Keough).
There are multitudes within this group of marginalized youths. Some are looking for a good time; others are running away from horrible upbringings. Each earns their keep by traveling around America’s heartland as door-to-door magazine salesmen Yes, in an era of social media and disappearing print journalism, Star will chase her American Dream by selling magazine subscriptions.
Jake takes Star under his wings because he is a) the top salesman and b) wants to sleep with her. The feeling is mutual. But Star’s goal is much more than sex with Jake. She wants to know how to support herself, how to make her own money and discover some sense of individuality within this group. Her main weapons are her wit and sexuality and she uses both of them remarkably well.
American Honey is writer/director Andrea Arnolds’s fourth feature film and as an outsider — she is English — she shares Star’s enchanted, if somewhat suspicious, view of the American Dream — something that seems to be just out of her grasp, until it isn’t, and then transforms into something sinister. This is beautifully articulated when Star impulsively jumps into the back of a convertible with three upper-middle class cowboys (Will Patton, Daran Shinn, Sam Williamson). They entertain her with BBQ, mescal and promises to buy her magazines. But not for one second does Star, or the audience, doubt that they want much more for their transaction. It is a familiar scene, one that walks right up to the edge of horror, but manages to play out in both an inventive and surprising manner.
Arnold’s acumen with the subversiveness that lurks just beneath the surface is playfully reserved, bubbling up only when absolutely necessary. On another call, both Jake and Star find their way into a middle-aged Kansas woman’s home (Laura Kirk) where Jake’s story of college pursuit taps into her notion of Christian charity. Many artists have tried to locate the clumsy intersection of American capitalism, Christian charity and commerce, but few pull it off. They drunkenly grope around in the dark hoping to find some semblance of insight. But in American Honey, Arnold bores into the hypocrisy by constructing a scene of three planes. Outside, the woman’s pre-teen daughter and her friends try to seduce Jake with a highly sexualized dance. Inside, Jake lies to the mother — who feels charitable just by letting these ruffians into her stately home — while Star, standing apart from them, observes all. Star’s commentary is crass — enough to break the charade — but it is honest and accurate.
The comment comes from Star’s mouth, yet she speaks for Arnold and anyone watching. It’s a masterful stroke, one of many in Arnold’s Americana-soaked road trip.