November 2016

Arts & Letters

Powerless agents

By Luke Davies

Sasha Lane in American Honey.

Andrea Arnold’s ‘American Honey’ is an exuberant, if meandering, trip

“I think they want you,” says Star (Sasha Lane), a shy, raggedy teenager with dreadlocks, to Jake (Shia LaBeouf ), a weird guy who wears suspenders over old-man chinos and has a long, thick side plait. He has just been ejected from a supermarket for dancing on the check-out bench to the piped store music. Star is talking about Jake’s bunch of misfit friends, who – ejected, along with him – are all piling into a mini-van in the parking lot. “Everybody wants me,” says Jake, shrugging, as if it’s the most obvious fact in the world. “I don’t,” says Star, annoyed. “Yeah, you do,” counters Jake. Star bites her lip. There’s something intriguing about the wildness of Jake and his gang. You can see Star sizing them up: What the hell brings them together? Why the mini-van? We’ve just seen her dumpster-diving for food with two small children in tow, so right now it’s not hard to imagine how enticing any vibrant, rowdy group of potential peers might look to her.

Director Andrea Arnold showed in the excellent Fish Tank (2009) and the frustrating misfire of Wuthering Heights (2011) that she’s deeply interested in how the down-and-out struggle to become the up-and-in, how the disempowered struggle to find agency, how the outcast might find acceptance – whether from the outer world or the hidden recesses of the self. In American Honey (in national release 3 November), Arnold’s first film set outside the United Kingdom, she continues her project. Star is living in that realm where the American dream has gone sour, where the dispossessed are so ubiquitous that any notion of rising above one’s circumstances seems only a distant fantasy. Dumpster-diving prowess aside, Star has neither the experience nor the street smarts to even conceptualise such a shift. The small children, it seems, are her stepsiblings; in any case she appears bound to them.

Jake’s gang roams the country selling magazine subscriptions door to door, giving versions of a grift in which they need to accrue “points” in some labyrinthine and mysterious system so as to pay for their impending college education. The distillation of desperation that Arthur Miller presented in Death of a Salesman – the belief that free enterprise will look after you, so long as you believe in it with a religious fervour, and never submit to inner doubt – has found its way to this film. Here, however, reality is infinitely less solid, and more ephemeral, than that experienced by Miller’s salesman, Willy Loman. Now there’s no sense of slogging it out on the road or of building up faithful customers to whom you might return year after weary, soul-destroying year. In American Honey every doorknock, every town, is like a raid, a hit-and-run operation. (We never even find out if anyone actually receives any of these subscriptions they pay for.)

In that supermarket parking lot, Jake suggests to Star that she tag along. She has until morning to decide, then they’re out of there. (Next stop, Kansas City.) At home, she’s harassed by a man with a dark energy about him. Is he a boyfriend? A stepfather? Arnold is never one for spoonfeeding backstory or exposition, nor for catering to an audience’s need for broader understanding. She prefers such things to be cumulatively acquired, and to mine the mood and texture of individual moments.

Later that afternoon, Star rocks on a backyard swing, wondering what she might do come morning. Seeing her on that swing, we realise just what a kid she is herself. A little later, she piles the two children out the window. Is she bringing them with her?

No. It turns out she’s leaving them with their mother, whom Star locates at some beer barn on the edge of town doing linedancing, and who is not overly happy when she realises that Star is about to cut and run.

Star joins the possibly dysfunctional, largely warm, definitely chaotic teen circus. Their improbable leader, it turns out, is Krystal (Riley Keough), who can’t be more than five years older than Star’s 18. “You coming with us?” asks Krystal. “Yes, ma’am,” says Star. “You must be the little redneck Jake found,” says Krystal.

The van is full of misfits: pimply, bong-smoking kids with nicknames like “Runt”, “QT” and “Pagan”. “You should let me be the first to fuck you,” says Corey (McCaul Lombardi), a grinning, tousle-haired blond who likes flashing his penis at every opportunity. “So you’re a southern girl,” comments Krystal, a while later. “A real American honey like me.”

Jake is set a little apart from the rabble. While everyone crams into the mini-van, he tends to travel between cities with Krystal, in a convertible. “This dude can sell,” Corey tells Star, admiringly. “Anything and everything.”

“Jake is a power agent,” adds QT. “He’s Krystal’s bitch.”

“He’s the best I got,” explains Krystal, later. “He knows everything on how to make money.”

For some years now, actor LaBeouf has been having run-ins with the press and regular public implosions. (He is apparently “back on the rails”, to use the dubiously judgemental phrase.) To anyone perplexed by his more desultory or dial-it-in performances of recent years, American Honey clarifies that he does have a certain intense likeability, a sublimated kind of charisma that seems both mournful and dangerous. His Jake feels at once loose-limbed, playful, arrogant and incipiently nihilistic.

Star, who just wants to be noticed – and why not by the alpha boy? – does all that she can to show him she’s disdainful of the myth that surrounds him. “Power agent”, indeed. The movie is not interested in exploring the methodology of the travelling circus, the door-to-door mechanics of the hustle. But we do get to see a little of Jake in action: he has the people-reading radar of a good con man. He knows that, when dealing with a mark, he has to be the person they want at that moment in their life.

“I’m selling magazines, yes,” Jake says to Star, of his sales success. “But I’m also selling myself. Belief in my future.” It’s a fascinating line, because the one thing, in fact, that Jake is not selling is belief in his future. He’s selling the character he becomes when that door is opened. Insofar as American Honey has moments of elegance and magic, those moments are found in the interplay between these itinerant youngsters’ real selves – their utter, plaintive lostness – and the moments of purpose, born out of economic desperation, where they get to “play” at being someone else.

Star’s own act of rebellion against Jake is to not play his game at all – to play out nothing but her distaste for the charade being demanded. Krystal is none too happy. “I’m watching you, country girl,” she says. “And you’re starting to get on my nerves.”

Through it all, the troupe drinks together, cavorts together, bunks down together, pees by the side of the road together. At forlorn hotels with names like the Extended Stay Inn, they meet bright and early by the mini-van for pep talks that look like gatherings that would attract the police. In a bizarre parody of motivational sales speak, in which the group chants and dances to rap music, they rev themselves up for the day ahead. There are even costume changes, so as to look more like trailer trash when going into poor areas. (“They’ll pity you because you’re just like them,” says Krystal. “So just act normal, have normal conversations.”)

American Honey, for all its raw strengths, for all that it presents as an improvised tone poem of the lost leading the lost in a spiritually malnourished heartland, disperses its energy in the final third, where in fact it could have done with some reining in. At a certain point it stops being narrative and simply becomes texture. Its many travelling-song montages in the van start to feel repetitive, and when it lands at actual plot points (conventional tropes, petty jealousies, a reckless crime) they feel clichéd – even though you get the sense that Arnold is trying, at these moments, to put flesh on the bones of the story.

“We found love in a hopeless place,” run the lyrics to a Rihanna song that the kids sing along to. But ultimately their disorientation – Arnold’s depiction of it, over a too-long two hours and 43 minutes – becomes exhausting. Robert Altman let Nashville (1975), a film that has tonal similarities, run to two hours and 39 minutes. But Nashville, also rambling and discursive, feels controlled at all times. Reading Joan Tewkesbury’s screenplay now, you see how extraordinarily precise and detailed it is: that appearance of meandering was planned, down to the last second. Much of American Honey was improvised, and while the film contains moments of unsettling grace, in the end it comes to feel like an improvisation in search of a screenplay.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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