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American Honey’s Primal Scream
Dir. Andrea Arnold, 2016
“What’s your dream?” a slaughter-house truck driver asks American Honey’s protagonist, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), as Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream,” blares across the truck’s radio. “No one’s ever asked me that before,” she replies, surprised at her own self-ignorance. “Well,” he tells her, “somebody has now.”
Her answer is no surprise to the jaded American—and perhaps, especially, the American woman—because American Honey is not the kind of movie that often gets made in America. But Arnold has finally asked that question to a certain kind of American: what is your dream? It may be that it took Arnold’s particularly British eye to reshape the rust-belt, southern landscape in the mood of the British kitchen sink drama, a social realist film genre that remains largely absent from the American tradition, here elegantly blended with the more familiar road trip drama.
This British gaze is not entirely without its blind spots, some more serious than others. Arnold occasionally misreads our cultural touchstones, as when a group of four men in matching white cowboy hats and outfits, blaring country music, approach Star, predatorily. Their outfits and demeanour seem like a parody to even the most cynical American (like this reviewer), and make it difficult to suspend disbelief. More seriously, that Star’s racial identity is never thematised explicitly even once in the film seems like a flagrant oversight of America’s ever-present racial tension.
Yet to reduce this film to a set of generic codes or political critiques would be to neglect its impressive contribution to American film. This is a film rife with windswept, magisterial beauty, grotesque alienation, and the shameful indignities endured by America’s utterly human poor. It is a tender portrait of America, as can be told only by someone who has never had to run away from it.
Formally, Arnold has a particular directorial tic in her use of lens flare. These moments occur frequently throughout American Honey, used to exquisite effect especially the first time Star and Jake (Shia Labeouf)—the charismatic leader of the group of itinerant magazine subscription sellers that she falls in with—have sex. It has appeared with similar effect in her films Fishtank (2007), and Wuthering Heights (2011). But her most recent film shows how this technique was just a prelude, one step along a trajectory that Arnold has now brought to its logical conclusion: when sunlight strikes a lens for long enough, what results is fire. This latter motif first appears among the motley crew of youths that Star now calls her colleagues, as the physical tension that has been building among the group becomes formalised as real violence: whichever two men made the least money that week must fight, and their flailing shadows are thrown to the ground by the roaring bonfire beside them. It again finds articulation as Star endures a humiliating sexual encounter with an oil worker that she’s met on the job, her handjob illuminated by oil fires erupting from surrounding pipes. But it is in the film’s final scene where this motif comes to real fruition, as Arnold puts Raury’s “God’s Whisper” to extraordinary diegetic effect. This final scene remakes the song, transforming it from a whisper into a primal scream, as Arnold’s cast encircle a bonfire with dancing that approaches the ritualistic. It is in this return to roots that Arnold finally finds the redemptive force running, like electricity, under an otherwise desolate landscape. These are the feral fragments of the American dream.
Alexis Brown is a doctoral candidate in English literature at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.