The Story We Tell Ourselves: American Honey‘s American Myths

illustration by Tony Stella

…we found love in a hopeless place…

When the van pulls into a new neighborhood, when the dozen or so eager, itinerant teenagers pour out with their sights set on all those vulnerable homes and the vulnerable wallets of the people inside, when they prepare to start another day of successfully persuading all those people to want something they don’t need—when they step up to the door, the play is always the same.

In a rich neighborhood, Krystal (Riley Keough), manager and benefactor to this merry, manic magazine sales force, tells them, “I want y’all to dress like dirty white trash. And then they’ll pity you.” But in an impoverished neighborhood, she tells them, “It’s just poor people like y’all. So they’ll pity you.”

Whether sympathetic or empathetic, these young drifters by their very existence will trigger some benevolent urge in their prospective marks. And it’s this vulnerability—this need, this unspeakable yearning for the spiritual fulfillment of having done good—that will make them most vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

“As soon as they open that door and look at you,” Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the Artful Dodger to Krystal’s Fagin, tells new recruit Star, “that’s the make-or-break moment. ‘Cause in that second…you gotta be able to scan them and figure them out, figure out what kind of person that person wants in their life. Then you gotta be that person.”

There’s no setting more ripe for this routine than the suburb they find on the outskirts of an oil field. Here, they divide by gender, Krystal sending the boys to the homes where they can prey on women lonely for their husbands, then driving the girls out to the derricks where they can prey on men lonely for female companionship. Here are the people who’ve achieved the ultimate American dream—quite literally striking oil, with all the easy and abundant cash that comes along with it—only to discover the unexpected anxieties and nagging hollowness that follow. That’s where the fault line forms in them, a fissure you can turn into profit if you just dig in your fingernails and rip.

Jake is the master of this scheme. Before the homeowner has even spoken, with the doorbell’s chime still fading, he can transform into a local college student raising money for a new cafeteria or a communications major competing for a trip to Hawaii, a representative of the United States Methodist Baptist Church, or a homelessness advocate from the Covenant House. All it takes is a split-second’s cold and calculating glance for him to know exactly who he’s encountered, exactly what they want, and exactly how he can use it. Just like all it took was meeting Star’s eye at that Kmart for him to trigger an impromptu dance mob, leaping onto the checkout counter to hop around and pump his fist and seduce her with his gaze, offering everything she longed for: freedom, fun, the ability to move through the world without responsibility or care.

He’s so good at what he does that Star doesn’t even realize until far too late that she was just another mark, just one more American with a formless yearning she’d do anything to fulfill.

…she grew up on the side of the road…

“We explore, like, America,” Jake tells Star when she catches him in the Kmart parking lot, returning the phone he only dropped so that she would return it. “And we party. A whole bunch’a shit. It’s cool.”

As sales pitches go, it’s comically ineloquent, but for Star—played with infectious guilelessness by newcomer Sasha Lane, not yet 20 when director Andrea Arnold encountered her on a Panama City beach—it’s more than she ever dared hope for. When your daily existence consists of scavenging dumpsters alongside pre-adolescent siblings in search of food to bring home to a drunken, sexually abusive stepfather, the invitation to jump into a van with a crowd of rowdy strangers (and their pet flying squirrel) may as well be a winning lottery ticket.

Ineloquent though it may be, Jake’s sales pitch proves a perfect summation of the life that Star steps into. Around the margins of their sales work, the mag crew lives a hedonistic existence, chasing impulses and urges, expressing themselves physically when their verbal powers fail them. Though it features no score, nor any other non-diegetic music, American Honey is suffused with song—the girls use music to lure the roughnecks at the oil field, blasting pop on the van’s stereo before exploding out to leap and twirl, their bodies hugged by thin dresses they’ve donned for the occasion, the better to embody a hallucinatory fantasy of carefree pleasure; and the entire crew uses music to blow off steam at night, blasting hip hop and rap from that same stereo as they build bonfires for them to vault and whoop around before disrobing for primal alpha postures and grunts. These are young people overflowing with feeling and yearning, and, for want of the expressive power by which to analyze it, they turn to their bodies, and the music they can use as a harness to hurl that emotion out of them and into the atmosphere.

These regular and explosive bursts of song lend American Honey the feel of a musical, that maximalist form defined by schisms in literal storytelling to allow the purging of feelings too ecstatically heightened for traditional expression. And Arnold’s film has the fantastical style to match; while the mag crew may suffer evident malnourishment and implied mental illness and chemical dependence, their existence on the road is virtually devoid of significant hardship—even when Star chooses to sell her company to an oil grunt for the night, he pays her exorbitant asking price without complaint and then chooses only to pleasure himself at the sight of her, asking only briefly for her hand and forcing nothing but a parting kiss. Arnold has conjured a world that exists in a perpetual magic hour, that perilously brief pre-sunset window coveted by filmmakers for the swooning haze it lends any image. It’s a moment defined by its ephemeral brevity, but Arnold manages to freeze this achingly nostalgic light and saturate her story with it so that Star and her new family are rarely forced to live in anything but the most beautiful moments of the day.

Arnold is far from the first director to elide life’s uncinematic details, but American Honey’s dreamy tone is notable for how wildly it diverges from the chilling realities of its source material. Arnold has mentioned finding the story’s nascent bud in a 2007 New York Times story titled “For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews.” After a lede analogous to Jake’s recruitment of Star—a former mag crew source speaks of hoping to “talk to people, party at night, and see the country”—the story immediately pivots to a painstaking exposé of the abuses suffered by young people who are evidently treated like indentured servants. “With striking uniformity,” the story alleges, crew members become addicted to crystal meth and leave arrest warrants in their wakes; when they fail to meet their quotas, enforcers brand them with lighters or beat them to unconsciousness. There are cited instances of rape and even murder on the road.

It’s not hard to guess why crew managers recruit teenagers. Not only does their youth serve as the ideal honey pot for desperate marks—in a video attached to the Times story, a coquettish young woman stakes herself out near a mall ATM to best take advantage of impulsive men she can whip into a spending frenzy—but they also serve as the ideal victims for their vulturous employers. A runaway minor will have so little agency and so few options that once they’re a few hundred miles from home, their lives will be utterly at the mercy of whomever offers room and board.

The world of American Honey, though, has little room for these ugly realities; Krystal’s cruelty to Star is limited to some light psychological abuse, and even after being banished over a burst of violence, Jake returns almost magically a few days later with a clean slate. What few lasting consequences there are in Arnold’s story result only in the net positive of personal growth.

With life’s more painful angles cropped out, Arnold’s film seems to draw its spirit less from the Times reporting than from her secondary cited influence: the photographs of Mike Brodie. In his 2013 collection A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, Brodie presents 60 images captured during his years illegally riding freight trains as a teenager. Like the mag crew, Brodie’s young subjects are visibly hungry, unwashed, and often injured, but his photos freeze them in moments of heightened emotion, selecting and emphasizing the romance and ecstasy in that way only a still image can. Like Arnold, Brodie favors the magic hour, stopping time in moments of grace and awe, plucking a single heartbeat from the messy sprawl of life to save and savor, the seed that can be nursed into a worldview romanticizing hardship and thereby mentally erasing it.

It’s in this attractively unreal world that American Honey takes place. Arnold is interested in the dream, not whatever might happen on waking.

…dream, baby, dream…

Andrea Arnold is an English director who, prior to American Honey, made distinctly English films—2009’s Fish Tank explores life in an East London council estate, while 2011’s Wuthering Heights recasts the classic novel as a primal pageant of near-wordless grime and gloom.

In many respects, American Honey is no different. Arnold brings to the United States that anthropologist’s eye available only to non-natives, a reserved perspective that lends an incredulous consideration to our familiar cultural benchmarks. There may be countless American films featuring roadhouse line dances, but they’re most often shot with a casual familiarity evincing a filmmaker and audience taking the setting for granted; when Arnold shoots that sequence however, she focuses on details no longer visible to anyone who grew up among the milieu—the too-loud music echoing hollowly in the vast tin space that’s simultaneously too bright and too dim; the ominous synchronized thud of cowboy boots on hardwood; the detached glaze in the half-drunk eyes of the sweat-soaked dancers, and the simultaneous riotous fluidity and violent rigidity of their movements—confronting the audience by stripping away all the common shorthands that numb one to their environment.

This outsider’s perspective links Arnold with other European auteurs—from Werner Herzog with 1977’s Stroszek to Paolo Sorrentino with 2011’s This Must Be the Place—who view the American landscape through an explorer’s gaze, rendering the vast, unpeopled middle of this country with all the forbidding eeriness of a Martian sea. “I have this very strange feeling of being in a constantly suspended reality in the United States,” Sorrentino has said. “American places are a dream, and when you find yourself [there], they don’t become real, but continue to be a dream.”

In the midst of American Honey—a film that so often moves at freeway speed—there comes one startling, still moment: the camera begins close on Star and the rest of the crew as they urinate on the side of the highway. It’s a classic image familiar from any story of group life on the road, but as they button up and step away from their makeshift bathroom, the camera pulls back and around to reveal that they’re standing on the rim of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. Lingering in this uncanny collision of bodily function and spiritual awe, the crew spends a long, silent moment gazing at the jagged rock formations that stretch past the horizon and glow in the dusky haze, their contemplation accompanied only by the cicadas screeching on the soundtrack. If there were words that could possibly convey the power of this sight, they might use them, but until those words are invented, all there is to do is linger and attempt to process the eerie grandeur.

This brief vignette echoes with Arnold’s own preparations for the film. The project has its roots in her impulsive decision not to board her return flight after the Sundance premiere of Wuthering Heights; she would spend the following years crisscrossing the country by car in search of American Honey’s story and its meaning. One misty morning, she drove to Utah’s Zion National Park, later telling Vogue’s Julia Felsenthal, “I was like, I’m not going to be able to see anything…[but] the sun came out, the mist cleared. It was like a curtain being lifted. There was this huge space like I’ve never actually seen. And it made me feel so happy I burst into tears. I don’t know why.”

This feeling—being overwhelmed by an inexplicable emotional response in the face of natural beauty—is the definition of sublimity, and it’s one with a particular and longstanding significance in the United States. Even four centuries after the settlement at Jamestown, this land carries a connotation of newness; the countryside that Star and the mag crew traverse, lying west of the Missouri River, was unknown to the descendants of those colonists for another two centuries. Huge swaths of this country—as of the 2010 census, nearly 3 million square miles, about 47% of its landmass—are still uninhabited. Man and nature abut one another here, often uneasily; American society in its strident capitalism may behave in so many ways either overtly or covertly hostile to nature, but that coexistence is still capable of provoking awe, that sense of sublimity explored by the Hudson River School painters of the 19th century, or Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote in 1863 of feeling “the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me” when experiencing the unspoiled nature of the American continent.

This natural grandeur, and the elemental hardships it implies, are inextricable from the longstanding icon of a hearty American frontier spirit, and the urge to confront and tame the wilderness—a spirit of “American Promethean heroism,” as Harold Bloom repeatedly references in his own study of the American Sublime. It’s this same spirit that has drawn Werner Herzog back time and again to document American life. “You still see the self-reliance and camaraderie out there…the down-to-earth people,” Herzog has said of the American Midwest. “There is definitely something bold about America.”

This association seems largely unconscious for American Honey’s mag crew as they cross the country’s vast, flat center, save for one shocking scene that brings it to the fore. The morning after Star’s night with the roughneck, she sits alone in the prairie to watch the sunrise, and as she stares at a horizon that perfectly bisects the screen, lit by the peach-gray of the lightening sky, a grizzly bear wanders semi-magically out of the haze. The creature waddles idly across the grass, and when it notices Star, it approaches with slightly more urgency. Rather than menacing her, however, the bear brings its nose to hers and smells her; rather than panic, Star holds her ground, her eyes wide with adrenaline. Only when the bear makes a sharp movement towards her face does she flinch. The moment is quiet, graceful—sublime. It’s a dream of the American frontier, a confrontation with something past human understanding that ends with tacit acceptance, a sense that a deadly powerful force has been reckoned with and brought to détente.

This encounter resonates with centuries of American legend, but for the majority of comfortably suburban American citizens, it’s no more tangibly relatable than any other ancient myth. Star seems to have breached an impenetrable threshold and stepped into America as envisioned in the collective unconscious, a concept so powerful and alluring that Americans have been eager to foster it for as long as there has been profit to gain. This frontier spirit, the hearty boldness that so enamors Werner Herzog, is a tremendous branding opportunity, and one that’s so easily weaponized. For decades, that power was largely directed outwards—wielded, say, by a cowboy president who lassoed the myth of the righteously avenging lawman to rain down fire and fury half a world away—but in recent years it’s more often been turned inwards.

That myth of some great, sacred, real America is so enticing and refreshing in these confusing, hostile times. We long for it, whether to turn back the clock to some theoretical past when it was reality or bring it to fruition for the first time. It’s in this longing where the fault lines form. And as they form, someone is always standing above you, waiting to turn that fissure to their advantage, to dig in their fingernails and rip.

…steal your freedom…change your mind…

In the first blush of their flirtation, Star mocks Jake for his ridiculously unfashionable slacks, a style choice that, combined with his thick brown rattail and eyebrow piercing, strands him in an uncanny valley between preacher and busker.

“You look a little– ” Star begins, but Jake cuts her off.

“Donald Trump-ish?”

Jake’s tone is inscrutable, and so it’s hard to know whether this is a comparison he cultivates or dreads. Still, it’s not hard to imagine Jake idolizing a figure like Trump, a man able to project casual, confident affluence, almost hypnotically able to persuade anyone under his sway to march their livelihoods directly into his pocket, able to reorder the world to his own advantage through the power of a grotesque but undeniable magnetism. This is not just Jake’s ideal, but quite often his achievement, as well. His serpentine ability to assume whatever persona will benefit him in the moment may be captivating, but it’s also unnerving, even bordering on sociopathy. If it’s impossible to divine the truth in any given story, then you have to choose between believing everything and believing nothing. And which of those options is easier, and more comfortable?

These days, it’s no casual or insignificant choice to title your film with a noun modified by “American.” It marks your story as somehow elevated beyond the universal, quotidian version of its subject—here is that subject imbued with all the weight and meaning of Americanism, a significance so self-evident it need not be elucidated. This isn’t merely an idea—be it honey or beauty, splendor or hustle—but rather that idea lent the spirit of Beverly Hills and Times Square, the melting pot and xenophobia, cheeseburgers and machine guns and the wild west and bikinis and military interventionism and, above all, glamorous affluence; all these and more modify this noun, making it the most version of itself. The words American Crime conjure images of this nation’s dual fetishization of the law and heroic lawlessness. American Justice can’t help but call to mind decades, if not centuries, of military history. We intuitively understand that the party taking place in American Beach House will be weighted with all the carefree consensual sex, harmless binge drinking, and limitless future potential that define the onscreen ideal of American youth.

The film database Letterboxd lists (by my casual and unscientific count) at least 148 moderately legitimate feature films that follow this convention, from American Addict to American Zombie. Of these, 33% were released between 1916 and 2001 (with the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle American Aristocracy being the earliest listed example), while 66% were released after 2002. It can’t possibly be a coincidence that this spike occurred after the September 11 attacks; in the wake of this epochal national trauma, America was gripped by two interconnected urges: to salve deep psychological wounds at home and to justify retaliative action abroad. Both these quests are ably served by a self-aggrandizing tendency to delineate and elevate the American way of life, to mythologize the American ideal as exceptionally pure—if an object is important, then the American version must be essential.

Thus, in the 21st century, the American ideal became less a story we told the world to inflate our standing than one we told ourselves to soothe our pain and anxiety. If America was exceptional, then American citizenship was a solemn and sacred right. And the more we came to enjoy hearing it, the more often politicians and corporations began to whisper, and then bellow, it in our ears, an alluring melody they could sing to excuse and distract from their own high crimes and swindles, and their incremental degradation of the rights we so pride ourselves on possessing.

And the more Americans have fallen under the sway of this narrative—the more we’ve come to believe in our inherent greatness, our right to be first—the more the schisms in our society have widened into chasms. It’s this gulf that Andrea Arnold’s mag crew explores, a country where nobody seems to possess the right amount of wealth—no matter if they have far too little or more than they know what to do with, they suffer some spiritual rot. In an impoverished household, Star will find a parent slumped in a meth haze and small children who offer her Mountain Dew from a barren fridge before serenading her with Dead Kennedys’ “I Kill Children.” In an affluent household, Star and Jake will be offered drinks by an unnaturally cheerful mother who crows, “We have just about everything,” while out the window her preteen daughter—named, of course, Destiny, Americanism made manifest—writhes erotically and chaotically with her friends to a muffled Ciara song.

It’s in these most affluent homes that tensions are most apt to flare. After Destiny’s mother unconsciously laughs at Jake’s insistence (in his professed role of “an impoverished youth, bottom barrel”) that he plans to better himself, after Star tanks their sales pitch by sneering, “the Devil has a hold of your daughter” with a nod towards Destiny’s impromptu backyard burlesque, and just before the two of them manage to escape without magazine subscriptions but with a ring that Jake has palmed in the scuffle, somewhere in that hectic middle, a screaming match erupts between mother and daughter—“You said I can do what I like!” shrieks Destiny, indignant at her mother’s demand for decency.

Even as they drown in signifiers of American affluence—spoils they’ve implicitly earned by virtue of their American industriousness—they snap and snarl at one another, each of them still driven by some unfulfilled need, be it for the stability of a well-behaved child, the freedom to casually flaunt a nascent sexuality, or some other formless urge all the more disturbing for the unconscious awareness that it can’t be fulfilled, not even by the alleviation of any material hardship, that prize of enduring personal bliss held aloft by every trusted power structure for as long as you’ve been paying attention.

…you think I am nothing…

It’s far too late before Star comes to grips with the full depth of Krystal’s scheme—before she realizes that Jake is the bait for new girls, netting a bonus for each one he snags. By the time she recognizes that she was just another mark, it’s far too late for Jake. Star has him right where she wants him.

…you’ve got something coming…

Star realizes quickly that Jake’s fondness for her isn’t as singular as she hoped. She cherishes the stickers he presents her with on their first day on the road—small, shiny stars; they reminded him of her—but when she flaunts them to one of the other girls, she realizes she’s been conned; Jake bought stickers for each of them on their own first days. For one girl, they were in the shape of Princess Leia—he has a thing for Star Wars, which accounts for his nicknaming Star “Death Star,” unconsciously associating her with that massively powerful form that looks like a safe celestial body until you’re close enough to be caught by the tractor beam.

Faced with a vacuum at her core that can only be filled by Jake’s desire, she turns it into a weapon. She encounters a group of gaudy, giddy, filthy rich suburban cowboys and absconds with them to a poolside private party, flaunting and teasing until Jake shows up with a gun to take her back, and take their money and car for good measure. Only when she uses her need for Jake against him, ensnaring other men in order to ensnare him—only then has she truly won him.

“I feel like I’m fucking America!” Star howls, standing up in the faux-cowboys’ stolen convertible as Jake tears it down the highway.

The line reading is as euphoric as it is inscrutable. Does Star feel herself consummating a passionate and tumultuous relationship with her homeland as she flies across the plains in a stolen car, drunk on a stranger’s tequila, alongside the violent and volatile object of her desire? Or in this moment, is Star the fucking embodiment of that homeland?

Maybe it isn’t it an either/or proposition. Maybe it’s all this and more as Star and Jake pull over to the side of the road to collide into each other’s grasp, two forces of frenzied and passionate desire, a conjoined vortex of yearning that spins centrifugally through the cosmos only growing more howlingly powerful the tighter their grip, fading into one another at the magic hour, that brief moment of vibrant longing that a camera’s gaze might be powerful enough to fool an audience into believing really could last forever.