American movies have a problem with poverty. Rarely depicted with any sort of nuance or insight, the condition of being poor is often treated as a disease-of-the-week unpleasantness. Good films have been made about poverty—The Pursuit of Happyness and Straight Outta Compton come to mind—but even there, scarcity is viewed as a scary “other,” a terrible thing that, but for the grace of God, go us. We’re not really meant to identify with the poor in these films—we’re supposed to be grateful, and to be impressed by how brave the filmmakers and actors are for tackling such a sad subject.
American Honey radically rewrites the viewer’s relationship to lower-class life. Writer-director Andrea Arnold has made a film about people hovering along the poverty line, but her characters aren’t noble saints or cautionary tales. Instead, the director of Red Road, Fish Tank, and Wuthering Heights immerses herself, and us, in their world without judgment. Arnold doesn’t just create a startling new reality of what it means to be poor in this country, she reconfigures how we look at America itself.
Part of the brilliance of her strategy is to place American Honey within the confines of two familiar genres: the coming-of-age drama and the road movie. The film stars newcomer Sasha Lane—a college student Arnold found while scouting in Florida during spring break—as Star, who’s trapped in a dysfunctional family life in the South. Searching for food in dumpsters, Star finds her ticket out when she runs across a van full of exuberant teens led by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), sporting a rattail and a face marked by piercings, who explains that they travel the country selling magazine subscriptions. You can make $300 a day if you’re good, he tells her. The offer sounds better than anything else she has going—plus, she thinks he’s cute.
From there, Arnold’s film follows Star, Jake, and the rest of the crew as they drive from state to state, knocking on doors in rich neighborhoods, trying to trick folks into buying magazines. Jake insists it’s all a game—go on, tell the customer your mom died of cancer—even though everybody they meet is skeptical that these kids are really raising money for some after-school project.
The tension between the haves and have-nots in American Honey is apparent in every frame. Arnold plunges us into the mindset of the crew, led by Krystal (Riley Keough), whom Jake is sleeping with presumably to maintain his place atop the pecking order. Listening to get-money hip-hop to psyche themselves up, the crew invades posh suburbs like an alien force, dazzled by the manicured lawns, backyard pools, and seemingly happy people. The group is littered with runaways and dropouts—young people who don’t have anyone who will miss them—and Star feels like she’s found a home amidst the outcasts, while catching a glimpse of the other America, where you don’t want for anything.
As Star encounters different kinds of people on her road trip across America—truck drivers, stay-at-home moms, and good ol’ boys—a spark develops between her and Jake. Dating within the team is forbidden, so the pair messes around in private. Again, Arnold isn’t interested in romanticizing the situation: Their carnal attraction is nothing more than the hormones of two screwed-up young people. Star’s not going to redeem Jake; Jake’s not going to teach Star any life lessons. They’ll fuck as long as it’s fun, or until Jake moves on to another crewmember. (LaBeouf is fantastic as this skeezy charmer.) Unfortunately, Star doesn’t realize this: For as much of a blasé badass as she likes to pretend she is, she’s got a soft spot, believing she’s finally met someone who genuinely loves her.
Working with a cast full of nonprofessionals—a strategy not uncommon in her films— Arnold isn’t interested in empathy in the traditional sense. No one in American Honey overcomes his or her circumstances: There’s a permanence to the poverty in this film that isn’t defeatist, but rather perceptive. The magazine-subscription racket is a way for the characters to keep going; if they’re kicked off the crew for not selling enough, they’ll have to find something else. Who has time for something so clichéd as a happy ending?
This isn’t to make American Honey sound oppressive or, perhaps worse, poverty porn. Arnold has often depicted characters from harsh circumstances—Fish Tank surveyed life in public housing in northeast London, and Wuthering Heights the struggle of living on a blasted moor—and she’s a master at normalizing the existence of the marginalized, understanding their day-to-day experience. Don’t be surprised that Star isn’t a traditional coming-of-age heroine: To change, she’d have to decide she has somewhere to go. Lane plays the character in a state of perpetual frustration and fragile immaturity, a young woman play-acting at adulthood. In one of the film’s more heartbreaking moments—presented in a nonchalant fashion, like so much of the film—someone asks Star what her dream is. “I’ve never been asked that,” she says, surprised at her own response.
Arnold, a British filmmaker, is clearly fascinated by our country’s contradictions—its wealth sitting alongside its poverty—and she displays an enormous amount of affection and compassion for everyone her camera captures. Whether it’s the sales team or the people they confront, American Honey finds different people all trying to live their own idea of what America is supposed to mean. Through Star’s hungry eyes, we see a country that doesn’t live up to its potential, but the film isn’t dismayed or enraged about that. Stunningly, and movingly, American Honey treats the inequality it observes as unavoidable—what matters is how we treat those around us.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host apodcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site