I don't mean to come across like one of those lone-fisted, self-righteous, middle class timeline revolutionaries (I say middle class, I just bought a 400 euro car) shitposting about the rights of people with whom I never interact. I say I don't want to come across that way, but I definitely will. I used to be active, I'll just say that much. But when I watch movies like American Honey I'm drawn to recall what used for me to distinguish actual leftist material by people who meant it from Guardian op-eds by guys living in Kensington. The real stuff told you what to do at the end. The purpose wasn't to get you to share the piece so you appeared all torn up about a bar chart, it was to get you out on a street someplace holding a placard. American Honey almost, almost has that feel. But instead of telling you what to do, it shows, like great cinema ought.
It's revolutionary in the way it takes a pretty standard set of tropes, the all-American road movie, a cluster of sexy, outlaw youths, a banging soundtrack and loads of luscious landscape photography, and presents an inversion of everything a movie like this typically says. It's the story of a teenage girl, Star, who we're initially introduced to dumpster diving for food with two young children, returning to an abusive stepfather and negligent mother, living in a kind of squalor shocking to witness only because you simply never see America shown this way on screen. Not without it being glamourised somehow. She bumps into Jake, played by Shia Lebeouf, and a gang of lost-boys and girls careening around in a van and causing chaos at a local supermarket. Jake offers Star a job in Kansas and, bereft of any other options, she accepts, abandons her family and gets in the van.
What she finds she's joined is a nomadic matriarchy constructed along tribal lines. The game is everyone has to sell magazine subscriptions to stay in the van. They do this door to door, approaching people in car-parks, bus stations, truck stops and oil fields. Like all true salespeople they sell themselves more than the magazines and say anything and everything to make the sale. Jake, as the top-salesman, is tasked with showing Star the ropes and right away, the initial connection between them sparks into a passionate and alluringly forbidden affair. Forbidden because Jake seems to be the property of Crystal, the aforementioned matriarch, who organises the accommodation and transport and enforces all the rules the guys and girls in the van need to stick to in order to keep on the road. Like any tribe, seemingly pointless rituals are key to the identity and success of the project. When one guys drops his trousers as a joke, the tradition is all the other guys give chase and play-fight him into submission. When anybody happens to play 'We found love' by Rihanna, everyone has to drop everything and wild out like crazy on the spot, the two worst sellers have to fight it out at end of each month and all of this is conducted in a patois of military style callouts, slogans and inter-group slang designed to bond the unit.
The most important of these traditions, though, is no couples. Jake explains to Star after they've made love that they've got to hide it from the group. It seems like you can fuck, but you definitely cannot have a relationship. The movie then becomes about Jake and Star burying and fighting their burgeoning young love in a way the viewer anticipates will end with some kind of ferocious romantic tragedy. Blood and gunfire and retribution. But this isn't what happens. In fact it's the exact opposite.
None of these kids are on their phones. Star has to borrow one at one point to check in at home, but aside from that, this is a generation and class of kids detached from an kind of a screen. They watch TV at night in motels but digest the content the same way they use the constant hip hop being blared over the van radio while they freebase and pass around the vodka bottle as breakfast. They use it to bond. The content doesn't matter. They sing along to every song the way drunks do arm in arm while the staff in clubs are already mopping up. The music is to keep them together. It's not to sell them any notions of love or wealth or freedom or political ideals. They consume it within the tribe for explicitly tribal purposes. And they're not consumers. The clothes they wear are picked out by Crystal to help them sell better in whichever district they're headed next. The food they eat and where they stay is based on what they can scare up. The only identity they have is a group identity, based in the songs and the rituals.
Visually, the film recalls everything from Easy Rider to Badlands to Larry Clark movies, which is intoxicating enough, but conceptually the story is taking us somewhere else. Jake isn't fucking Crystal. Crystal, the only person with her own motel room, fucks two, three guys a night according to her whim. She won't allow monogamy. Star has found a lifestyle which has reverted back to pre-capitalist, maybe pre-feudal times. Nomadic, skill-based, property-less, sharing commune, only one where they never once make it a political thing, never once speechify on why or where it came from. It's also decidedly not a utopia. It's brutal. The fight scene between losers is cold. They point out how the group frequently abandons poor sellers on the side of the road, only because it can't afford to carry them.
The film presents all of these rituals and laws as something Star comes to accept easily, not out of being politicised or radicalised in any way, but because she's coming from nothing. She hasn't got a phone to check in on Facebook. She can't bingewatch box sets of MadMen on a 20 year old TV with 4 channels. Fashion and nutrition and exercise and partying and the concerns of a modern nineteen year old have never been on her radar. Marx never proposed revolution as morally correct, or even as a choice. He presented it as an inevitability. What Andrea Arnold does with American Honey is to present a revolution that's bloodless and simple and almost natural progression for an underclass of forgotten people. Here's where she makes it interesting. Romantic love.
People like Adorno for years posited an idea of romantic love as a red herring. Romantic love, for a revolutionary, is a distraction from what a person truly yearns for, which is community and to be part of the nurturing group. Monogamous, romantic love between two people was designed to focus on the self, divide property up and segment communities. Right from the start, traditional monogamous love is painted as corrupted and corrupting. Star's stepfather, her mother and the environment in which they exist is toxic and doomed. But Star inevitably sees her narrative with Jake as something paving the way for a glittering future together. He for his part gives her gifts and flies into a jealous rage at the idea she might have sold herself sexually. Both characters seem headed for the tragic-romantic end, but then something else happens. Crystal pulls rank. Jake is banished. When he returns, passions have cooled. This brings us to the final scene. The van full of youths stops by a lake to bed down for the night. They start up a campfire, begin dancing around it, like any ancient tribe would have, leaping over the flames for sport, and Jake secretly hands Star the gift of a small turtle. One of many gifts from him she immediately gives away. But this one she gives back to the water. Star looks for the longest time at the group she's adopted as her community. Then she walks into the lake herself, emerging moments later to shoot upward, lashing back her dreads like a rebirth, like a baptism to something all-new. It's a scene many struggled with. I found it fascinating. She's relinquished her romantic aspirations. She's given away Jake's turtle. She's part of the tribe now. She's learned to love not herself, but the group. The film is about someone learning not to love.
As a married man, who, let's face it, very naturally loves his wife, this presents a really confrontational outlook. Everything else I can imagine buying into, the attitude to media, property and ritual is all fine but learning to get past the love of an individual I've already fallen in love with, is shocking to me. This is what good art does. It confronts you with yourself. This sounds like some fucking aphorism you might witness on BBC4 in front of a carefully lit Caravaggio, but cinema like this nourishes you and really, annoyingly maybe, gets you talking this way. Much to the dismay of probably everyone.
Naturally American Honey went overlooked at every awards ceremony and is currently running around 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, but I can't recommend the film highly enough.