Historically, road movies are contingent on a destination. They’re not so much about what that destination is, but the road movie is about characters striving to get somewhere specific. More often than not, road movies eschew the actual arrival in favor of narratively regurgitating the oft-quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson adage, “life is a journey, not a destination.” Even if the destination turns out to be a mirage, as it does in something like Easy Rider, there’s a goal that propels the plot forward even though the lion’s share of the genre is much more concerned with what its subjects learn along the way. But what happens when your road movie has no destination?
Andrea Arnold’s fourth film, American Honey, opens claustrophobically on Star (played by nonprofessional Sasha Lane), a young woman straddled with an incredible burden. She dumpster dives to provide meals for her younger siblings and a sexually abusive patriarch, while her meth-addicted mom line dances at the local saloon. We get the idea that this is Star’s everyday. Unsurprisingly, she jumps at the chance to run away with a group of rambunctious, transient teens she meets in a grocery store.
We immediately understand Star, as a road movie hero, is set apart. Her egress isn’t precipitated by a privileged and calculated attempt at self-discovery, as we see in the likes of Lost In America or Sideways. Instead, Star’s journey begins for the sake of her psychological survival. Her needs chart closer to the base of Maslow’s scale than most road movie heroes.
We spend most of the film in a van, hanging with Star and her new family - a group of wayward poor white kids who love hip hop and have co-opted the n-word. They sleep in a different motel each night, and spend the day drinking cheap vodka and hustling fake magazine subscriptions. Like Star, they have nowhere better to be. This is a better situation than wherever they came from. Like Badlands and Two-Lane Blacktop, American Honey traverses large stretches of the red-state U.S., parts of the country that, like the film’s subjects, have largely been neglected.
In its central conceit, American Honey subverts road movie convention. There’s no end goal for these kids; they’re happy hawking magazines subscriptions in perpetuity with the family they’ve cultivated. And while Star tries her damndest to fit in with the family that has adopted her, it never quite clicks. She hopes they can fill the chasm that her biological family left, but the group never elevates above being mere coworkers. While American Honey was marketed as “Young Woman Finds New Family And Liberation Travelling America’s Heartland With Ragtag Group,” the film actually asks, “What happens when you can’t find a family?” While the group is generally accepting of Star, the boss of the operation, Krystal (played by the intimidating and assured Riley Keough), is unceasingly critical of her. And though Star thinks she’s found romance in Jake (played by Shia Labeouf), she soon realizes she was his commodity, the next girl to fill the position. Instead of watching Star’s life change on the road, toward a certain destination, Arnold asks us to consider what it’s like to not discover anything, to never find what you’re looking for. With no end in sight and no salve to be found, Star has to navigate constant struggle and alienation. Instead of finding a new family, she’s only traded one source of subjugation for another.
The film frames its ingenue appropriately, shot in Arnold’s usual 1.37:1 squarish border as opposed to an expansive widescreen that allows characters to move freely across open landscapes. But while American Honey’s framing represents a world that confines and oppresses Star, she isn’t willing to be subdued. Almost foolishly reckless, she’s constantly entering herself into situations that could yield terrible physical and psychological results. In the film’s most compelling scene, Star jumps into the convertible of three rich suburban cowboys who take her to one of their mansions. In exchange for purchasing magazine subscriptions, the men dare her to take mezcal shot after mezcal shot. As she gets increasingly drunk, the viewer’s fear of what these men could do to her become incredibly palpable. A similar scene follows later, when she accepts a man’s offer for a paid date. He drives her into a dark, deserted stretch of land while we watch from the backseat of his truck. Star’s vulnerability is nearly tangible as we consider what this strange man is capable of doing to her body. Appropriately, the relationship she strikes up with Jake flames out with a display of unchecked aggression that emphasizes the fragility of her physical existence.
We’re not sure if Star goes about her life doing the mental calculus of potential danger, but Arnold puts the viewer in the position to constantly anticipate her complete obliteration at the hands of men. Like an effective horror film, imminent threat looms right off the frame, ready to envelope our protagonist’s life. This imminent threat for Star, and for all women, if not the film’s main focus, is its most salient point.
True to the film’s insistence to be both anhedonic and resistant to convention, we last see Star at a routine bonfire somewhere in between cities. She finally acknowledges what we’ve already known, that this isn’t her new family, and we watch as she walks into the nearby lake until her head is submerged. For a few moments, the scene is quiet and we watch the ripples on the lake, before Star emerges from the water with purpose. In this small gesture, Arnold offers us a subtle resolution: while Star is alienated from comfort and can’t escape forces of oppression, she’ll remain persistent. The only option she sees for herself is to doggedly endure with her head up. Though Star’s naivety is expunged by the end of the film, her optimism can’t be squelched.
As necessary as I think the movie is and as much as I appreciate how it expresses itself, I’m repelled from revisiting these characters anytime soon. Aside from Krystal and Jake, Arnold doesn’t judge the lot of them; she’s more interested in surveying a certain representation of impoverished, uneducated, rural, white youth, but the way she cultivates Star’s sense of unwelcomeness is transposed onto the viewer. We don’t want to come back.
The stamp of influences on American Honey are obvious. The constant narrative rhythm propelled by music, mixed with its survey of America’s dispelled youth recalls Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. Arnold’s persistent female subject amongst constant subjugation invokes Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. The poor struggles of door-to-door salesmanship can’t really be made without referencing the Maysles’ Salesman. To say American Honey’s references and touchstones are thinly veiled isn’t to speak disparagingly of the film. It manages to cull from film history to express its own individual viewpoint of being a young, poor woman in America without a home and in search of a family.