American Honey

American Honey

CW: sexual harassment

I know these faces. These are not the faces from the magazines. These are not the faces from Hollywood (even the ones that actually were). These are faces I see everyday. They're Walmart parking lot faces. They're pickup trucks at gas station faces. They're faces you see in high school yearbooks and small town newspaper mugshots and sports moments, missing persons notices and crowd shots. They're faces at the mall. They are the cornfed cross-section of middle class white America, appropriating hiphop and music video fashion sense, uninhibited by the standards of adulthood, only vaguely aware of their own exploitation by the callous taskmasters who encourage them to then continue the chain of exploitation. They are the middlemen of exploitation.

Race is in no small part woven into this, but I genuinely cannot tell with how much intention. Star's background is never explicitly discussed, but there are unspoken moments where it fills the air. Her relative youthful naivete is not tempered by typical narratives attached to people of color; she is intelligent and capable but not a stereotype of a "street smart kid" or defined by her low-income history. She is derided as a "country girl" instead, and is versed in line dancing. She is as much illustrated by cultural markers that speak of rural white America than anything else. Meanwhile, around her, the white kids sing along to rap music and use AAVE at times, oblivious to the implications of cultural appropriation (why would they be otherwise, of course, they aren't amateur film critics...). The contrasting depictions speak quiet volumes as they lay bare America as Andrea Arnold sees it.

It makes me wonder what others see here. To me, this is a harsh indictment of the exploitation of children, an empathic exploration of their lives and the weathering effects of living in an invisible, roving prison. Krystal is a caricature of the violent, venal boss, half-dominatrix, half-factory foreman, a vector of, a tempest of stress. She is the mafia don, and Jake is her dragon, her right arm, her capo, a predator with a shit-eating grin and suspenders. Perhaps I've no proper perception of LeBeouf, but before seeing him here I knew him only as a punchline. He certainly did not seem like one here. Jake serves as the middle management metaphor, the friendly boss who is feeling heat from below and above, but who is still low enough on the totem pole to be human. Still, it falls to him to do the ugliest of jobs (scavenging for girls to lure into this carnival mirror of corporate America). ("I learned it from you, dad," the magazine crews say to Wall Street.) Star is the myth of the independent worker, the newcomer cutting through the bullshit for a brief moment only to fail to make any change to the system; she doesn't do this in the traditional ways, nor in intentional ways. This is a look at the human survivors in capitalism's barely legal (read that in several ways) underclass.

What do you see? The love story? The hopes and dreams withering on the vine or surviving in spite of it all? The camaraderie of a nascent community, forming their own spiritual ceremonies around violent campfires, or the machinations of ruthless corporate culture-building techniques applied in the field to control those too young and inexperienced to understand that they are being controlled? Do you, libertarian, see virtue here? Do you, socialist, find this lack of agency in the illusorily free working class offensive? Do you, liberal, feel your heart bleed? Do you, conservative, dismiss this as distortion and melodrama? Do you queer children notice the queerness here (are they making out by that bonfire? Did I see that right?)? Do you feminists recoil at the treatment the girls receive yet applaud the film for not flinching from showing it? Do you non-feminists not even notice the way the boys subtly harass, the way Jake crosses the line, the way the camera treats that one moment between him and Krystal (so grossly filmed, so directly filmed, so unnerving)?

I ask these (leading) questions because this is Andrea Arnold's view of America, and I can't help but wonder what America thinks of this. I am not America (America has made that clear). I am here despite America. I see in this the indictment I feel in my bones; I see in this the soul-eater that is capitalism and its weapons patriarchy and white supremacy; I see the poisons coursing through the culture portrayed and feel how they ripple outward. This is not an expose on a facet of America; this is a blunt picture of the whole. Do you feel this is a smaller picture than that? How does America see this? How does America feel about this?

52 project: 83/52

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