AMERICAN HONEY (2016)
A beautiful analogy for the American experience even though you likely didn’t have one quite like the one we see on screen. It’s a movie about the American dream and how its promise often comes up short, but you realize that even though you’re miserable we’re all miserable together.
We have our American girl, Star, leaving a bad situation to be free – travel with a group of friends, make money, see the world (or at least some of the ugly middle parts of the US).
She realizes that the workplace isn’t as rosy as she hoped, with lying, deceit, and self interest being the only rules by which people play. Eventually she embraces these ideals herself and finds success doing so.
By the end of the film the “freedom” of the new opportunity doesn’t feel entirely so free anymore. There’s risk to leaving – financial and physical, but maybe most importantly: emotional. Once you’re a part of a system and a community, even though it’s flawed, it’s very hard to leave.
AMERICAN HONEY provides an amazing comment on the lock-in of the American system – are we “free” or is this version of communal suffering simply the best we have to choose from? There’s freedom – the road trip analogy in the case of the film – but there’s really no escape. Being free simultaneously means you’re left alone if you don’t adhere to the rules.
Krystal – the leader of the magazine selling tribe – delivers most of the framework and logic for how and why the group operates, if her own motivations aren’t entirely clear (a downside of the film). She threatens to out you if you don’t play by the rules, considers you lucky to be a part of the group, emphasizes the importance of capitalism, and has a unapologetic sexiness about her. If that isn’t a metaphor for America I don’t know what is.
Further underscoring the feeling of being “trapped” in this fake freedom is the 4:3 aspect ratio, making the van and conflicts feel additionally claustrophobic – a brilliant contrast to the open spaces long roads. Even in the great wide open these kids are trapped in this life.
Are they traveling the country or do they simply have nowhere else to go? By the end of the movie it’s clearly the latter.
Star is a charismatic lead, if one dimensional and often making the uneducated decisions we wish she wouldn’t. She make she the decisions your parents warn you about, and perhaps that make sense as her parents are absent scumbags. One of the brilliant story telling choices in the film is putting Star into situations where the worst is possible but it doesn’t happen. “She could be raped or killed!” you’re thinking as she dips her toe into prostitution. That thought is all you need to make the scene dramatic and tense. The filmmakers understand the audience will assume the worst, so the avoidance of telling a more melodramatic version (where she gets beaten or raped – both fair within this universe) is actually more daunting and powerful. It’s the vulnerability that strikes a true chord.
I didn’t fully buy into the relationship between Jake and Star – maybe that was the point. But when they were fighting or making love (some amazing love making scenes – very real in the grass with jerky gonzo style camera movements) I didn’t really care what the outcome would be. Our we meant to think their connection was more lust than love or was it ineffective storytelling? I think the ambiguity was intended but it would have served for them to connect about something deeper than money or Jake’s bag of stolen jewelry.
Star’s role as the attractor of all things animal – both animals and humans – serves to humanize her and make her likable. Some people just seem to attract the wild and try to care for it and she falls into that camp. There also was a ridiculous, over the top scene where a bear yells in her face then wanders off but I mean fuck it why not. Cinema!
The cinematography was close up, yellow, saturated, shallow focus, and often felt documentary-esque. An interesting mixed bag that made the film feel grounded and raw, but still cinematic and striking. A tough line to walk but one that they managed mostly with success.
The music was low-brow-rap-pop (not a genre, i know) – but essentially songs that are more for their catch phrases and beats than their ideas. Brilliant choice considering the overall message of the film is that America is just one big bag of cheetos and we’re just living in it.
Walking out of the movie I was a fan, but after unpacking it a bit more I think it’s a brilliant effort.
Great world building, ambitious themes, and unique story telling. That’s good movie making. If this long and rambling post is any indication it’s thought provoking to boot.