Written by Jordan Parrish
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) appears to present a story about a young woman drifting across the United States with a crew of young misfits selling magazines, partying, and falling in and out of love. However, Arnold’s use of cinematography, sound, and lighting turn this story into a sensorial experience on parallel with the contemporary cine-poems directed by Terrence Malick such as Tree of Life (2011) and Knight of Cups (2015). Arnold infuses American Honey with non-narrative driven shots describable as “Lubezki-an,” featuring a camera as restless and visceral as the film’s protagonist, Star (Sasha Lane). For example, Arnold presents Star’s seemingly random encounter with a grizzly bear nearly biting her head off as a comment on the violent fight that she has with her lover, Jake (Shia Lebouf), in the previous scene. The film also shows many aside shots featuring Star returning small animals such as bees and turtles to their natural homes, expressing her desire to care for small creatures i.e. children of her own as a wife and mother. The camera’s constant, unsteady movement and close proximity to the characters (Arnold rarely uses anything longer than a medium shot distance) place the spectator just as adrift in the landscape as the protagonist, presenting mid-western America as an ocean with the characters’ movements maintaining a fluidity resembling that of sea creatures.
Star travels with these characters inside of a van acting as a virtual fish tank throughout the film, expressing Arnold’s further interest in epidermic contact between enclosed interior spaces and a brutally false external one as seen in her earlier Fish Tank (2009). When Star first sees the van drive by, its loud bass attracts her to it as if a virtual heartbeat absent from the rest of the world. American Honey spends a large portion of its screen time simply depicting the crew driving in the van blasting popular music and singing along with it, each song carefully chosen to comment on the relations between the characters. However, none of the songs hold as much weight as the title track by Lady Antebellum, the most striking scene of the film occurring in a long scene featuring the characters all singing along to it. Arnold emphasizes Star’s concluding inability to sing along anymore caused by disillusionment with her place in the world, abruptly cutting the music as Star emerges from underwater in the final scene soon after. Star can no longer see anything outside of hollowness and deception, no longer hear the music from before, or experience the supposed “sweetness” of being an “American honey” any longer. In this way, she embodies her name’s meaning in the end, her mother naming her after the fact stating that everyone is born from remnants of dead stars. American Honey ultimately suggests that American ideology surrounding femininity, as seen and heard in mediums such as film and popular music, repeats a cycle of stellar death for subjects in the real world. Star’s experience of loss in this world transforms the film’s intense natural sunlight into a concluding shot of flickering fireflies; however, the film does not end on a pessimistic note. These tiny fireflies illuminate the invisibility and precariousness of night in the same way that stars do for those lost in the world’s oblivion. Rather than a descent into nothingness or a supernova exploding, American Honey presents the death of a star as the simultaneous birth of a subject.