This week, for the first time, we both go into our Required Viewing sight unseen. Why the departure from tradition? Because Brooke’s hype was so real and Annemarie’s not knowing the thing existed but going along for the ride anyway based on “WHAAAT? YOU HAVEN’T HEARD ABOUT IT? The Beef is back!” was so real, that we kind of had to. We watched Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, and we are bursting with thoughts.
B: I’ll dispense with asking AM why I made her watch this movie since we both know I was going on pure instinct and my fangirl adoration for A24. Instead, I’ll open us up with a super quick overview and a summation of the “why” of my hype. American Honey is a visceral road movie that finds a young girl with quite literally nothing to lose joining a ragtag band of youths traveling around the American Heartland selling magazine subscriptions. There’s more, much more and we’ll get to it (oh, will we get to it), but first … AM, give us your take nut graph/elevator pitch of American Honey.
A: First of all, normally a logline like “ragtag band of youths” would make me run for the hills, so it’s a really good thing that I knew three pieces of information coming into this movie:
- Brooke told me The Beef was in it.
- I saw the poster briefly walking into the theatre.
- Brooke adores A24 and would probably give up a firstborn to work there.
For those who don’t know who The Beef is, shame on you, but also, we’re referring to renowned Transformers star and noted crazy person-actor Shia LaBeouf. Actually, just watch this. We’ll wait.
Did you enjoy that? Let’s just say that American Honey capitalizes on the mad energy of The Beef without going as over the top as this performance art piece.
Now, I haven’t seen a lot of movies, this is known. #ITISKNOWN However, I have seen and enjoyed the Terrence Malick film The New World. I came for Colin Farrell and stayed for the magical ambiance. I know Brooke will school me in all sorts of fun film school information that will probably blow my feeble non-film-nerd mind, but that’s the film that American Honey evokes for me. It’s all emotion and light and it’s something you can’t look away from and you can’t stop thinking about after it’s done. It feels so incredibly true to who America is if America was a person.
Back to my quick synopsis. Our young heroine, Star, first encounters the “ragtag band” (last time I’ll use it, promise) at a Kmart in Middle of Nowhere America. She’s fresh off of dumpster diving for whole chickens in the hot sun and they’re freely dancing to “We Found Love,” the five-year-old Rihanna and Calvin Harris tune that still holds up as one of the catchiest songs of this decade. A few looks at The Beef, and she’s ready to go with them, selling magazines door-to-door but mostly having adventures with strangers, drinking at 8 a.m. with her teammates and getting sexy stoned with The Beef in various targets’ backyards. No spoilers, but things go neither as well or as poorly as they should. And you won’t be able to look away. Even though the runtime is bordering on 3 hours and I normally want to scream at the film editor to MAKE BETTER CHOICES. I don’t feel that way about this film.
Brooke, what are your thoughts on an 18-year-old kid leaving everything to join up with The Beef? Ill-advised or no?
B: Annemarie! I am so full of pride. There are notes of Malick all over the composition of this movie. Particularly in the natural light and landscape shots. I think there’s more to this aesthetic and narrative than old Terry is normally willing to give us, but I feel like The New World and Days of Heaven both have similar melancholy tones and themes to this picture. They are both also very rooted to the American landscape and it plays a significant role in American Honey. The absolute love of the land is evident in every frame, which is made all the more fascinating by the fact that Andrea Arnold was born in the U.K.
For the record, you’re not wrong about the lengths I’d go to work at A24. They’re the heroes we need and deserve. But getting back to Star, who is played with incredible range by newcomer Sasha Lane, I do not blame her at all for taking off. I mean, Teenage Brooke would have had it so bad for Shia/Jake, who is a charismatic dreamer. Present Day Brooke still got it up to a point. But even more than the cute boy dancing to a hot Rhi Rhi jam (see below) is the absolutely heartbreaking reality she’s leaving behind. In the first minutes of the film we see the devastating dumpster chicken poaching, see a stomach-turning amount of unwanted affection from her fucked-up stepdad and witness a barfly mother dismiss her children in the name of line dancing next to girls the same age as her eldest daughter. It sets the blood to boiling and the heart to breaking all at once. So, even though the ragtag youths are loud, hard-partying, crammed in a smelly van and engaging in a questionable commercial venture, 10 times out of 10 she needed to go with them. Go on girl, get gone.
I haven’t stopped thinking about this movie since we watched it, and one of the elements that I keep coming back to is the notion of innocence and wonder that runs under all of the grit and uncertainty in Star’s life. It’s a testament to youth that she springs out of this bleak world and doesn’t let her life define her. Sure, she has a chip on her shoulder, but she’s ultimately a moral, kind being with simple, sweet dreams. And isn’t that at the core of all of these kids? Even their stone cold boss, Krystal? I mean, talk about hope springs eternal. What do you think AM, is Star’s weird little makeshift family good for her?
A: Innocence is an interesting thing. It assumes that one day a person is a child, and the next, they’re not. They’re an adult, with all the responsibilities and privileges assumed therein. That’s so far from the actual reality of how the world works, where a person can be a parent to younger siblings, cook for a creepster stepdad (true story: I thought he was Star’s boyfriend who had worn out his alcoholic welcome) and act as a den mother to the van crew, but also be unaware of how to sexually please a man or have seen anything outside of your rural world to the extent that the mediocre skyscrapers of downtown Kansas City feel utterly alien to you.
It’s so different from my own reality — start to finish — and that aids in the “couldn’t look away” thing we both keep saying. In addition, to hope springing eternal, we also said that this movie makes us want to check our privilege. I have never, ever, ever had to consider diving into a dumpster in order to find food because you can’t afford it and you don’t want to shoplift, never mind do it with children in tow. Agreed that there were moments, several of them in fact, that absolutely broke my heart. Moments where Star rescues animals are bittersweet. She can hardly take care of herself, but she’s compelled to help out whenever she can. That speaks to her person and who she could be, given an opportunity.
These are kids that aren’t even asked what their dreams are. It’s too much to have dreams when you’re simply trying to survive. Poverty like that is all too rampant, and for sure I feel some middle class straight white girl guilt sitting here with my middle-class-straight-white-girl problems. On that note, I felt very strongly that Arnold cast actual runaways in this film. IMDB would seem to support that, as many have no other film credits, and Arnold supposedly hosted auditions in parking lots with kids she’d see on the street. No amount of makeup or hair can make up for reality, and seeing real kids live probably close approximations of their real lives was incredible to build a story upon.
True story also about The Beef’s relative sexiness. He was appealing and inviting and unable to resist, but he’s also got a crazy streak (we’re talking violence here). There’s no amount of sex appeal and chemistry that can truly make up for rage that can explode at any second, but the heat from The Beef and Lane is undeniable. Rather explicit, especially for audiences used to the film cutting away once the kissing moves from make-out to foreplay, but again, whatever they were doing was either real or so far along the real spectrum to be indistinguishable from each other.
Let’s talk music. I keep hearing about this thing called “trap” music, what’s it all about? Brooke, how did you feel the music choices added to the film?
B: Before I get into the music, I must commiserate on the heat, I mean, it was all I could to do to stop myself from turning and asking AM if they were actually having the sex — and it probably wasn’t self-control, just the fact that I couldn’t look away. But, I digress. A quick note on the kids and then to the music. If I had any reservations about this movie it would have been the risk that it fall into Kids territory, because even from the trailer, this movie has the feel of authenticity. And as transfixing as Kids is, it’s also repellent, but American Honey isn’t that at all. It’s beautiful and hopeful, even when it makes you want to weep because all this girl wants in the world is a trailer by some trees. I mean, damn.
Okay, but the “trap” music. We both know I am the worst twentysomething of all time. I have been about 30 since I was 8. And my only knowledge of trap before this was as the background to a terrible vaping competition YouTube video one of our friends made us watch. I hated everything about it. This movie made me get it. I still couldn’t do a definition justice, but I know beats and feeling the need to dance has to be an element. I think there are elements of it in the hook to “We Found Love” and I’m pretty sure I get what a “hot beat” is now. But seriously, this soundtrack is pretty incredible. The blend of classics, country and trap is a perfect pair for the raw, fresh, bittersweet vibe that plays throughout the entire picture. When the kids have a singalong to “American Honey” and we watch this amazing sense of peace and acceptance wash over Star’s face it was gorgeous and nearly had me full-on ugly crying. I just wanted to hug all of them. Music is so central to our memories that the use in this picture helps to take us right back to that time and place in our own lives. It’s a universal sensation that fills your heart. Dammit, Andrea Arnold, you’re talking to my romantic soul here. Take over AM, before I start getting weepy.
A: Sniff. I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING. Hear that (haha pun intended) on the music. Just like smell, music has such an incredible power to take us back. You remember what you were doing the first time an important song came on, you remember who you were and why you loved it. It’s nostalgia built into chords and lyrics. #LOVE
As I was thinking about Star saving animals, I had an epiphany about the use of water in this movie as a metaphor for Star’s struggles to literally keep her head above water. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call any of Star’s water encounters a baptism, but there are great moments for her with water involved, and then moments that take a weird turn and water is a common thread throughout.
I don’t know if any of that made sense or was nearly as deep as it was in my head, but there’s something there, I am sure!
As a rather old millennial, I also am not sure how I’d categorize trap music, but I think the dance quality and the halting lyrical beat is the route I’d go. And yes, that was probably the most authentic sexy time I’ve witnessed in a film, and we know that The Beef made his own sex tape soooo. It’s possible it was real. That’s all I’ll speculate on this semi-sordid topic.
Anything else Brooke? We usually don’t gush over movies that probably no one has seen, but this one had a lot to unpack. Any final thoughts?
B: I had to take a beat and think back to all of the water moments for a minute there. And you know, I think you may be on to something, but I’m thinking it might be a bit of a rebirth and renewal visual. Something to signal the start of new life and new hope. Annemarie, I think you are becoming … ONE OF US, ONE OF US, GOOBLE GOBBLE ONE OF US.
I have so many more thoughts, like, if we had less self-control (and yes, I am suggesting that we do actually have some, this could be the longest Required Viewing of all time), but I’m going to rein it in and restrict myself a bit here. I have to comment on the fireworks. I am such a sucker, but the use of fireworks in American Honey was so delightful. I’m not going to fall into the trap of a metaphor about catalysts and explosions, I’m just going to say that I appreciated them aesthetically and audibly in the landscape of this movie.
Let’s talk about Krystal. We haven’t really addressed her yet, and I think she’s fascinating. So, Riley Keough gives us a memorable supporting turn as Krystal, the ring leader of our merry band of misfits. First, Krystal is pretty brilliant, she has all these kids in her pyramid scheme out doing the hustle while she does all the war planning. AND she has Mr. Seductive himself, Jake, so wrapped around her finger that he’ll apply tanning lotion to her like some sort of marginalized cabana boy.
BUT, underneath all of that is some real vulnerability. Krystal has a tough-as-nails exterior, but she is ultimately right there with Star pining for the man she can control, but not truly command affection from, and it seems to me she has some abandonment and substance abuse issues to contend with as well. But, harsh as she can be, she’s a bit of a mother to her crew, and something of an old soul. I’m pretty sure I would watch a spin-off just about her. Thoughts?
A: The realism also reared its head when we’re looking at and listening to Krystal. Keough channels her grandfather’s charisma (Oh, you didn’t know she’s Elvis’ granddaughter?) into a damaged soul who is still savvy enough and wise enough to get what she wants without truly abusing anyone else. These kids are doing her bidding, but she’s taking care of them, nurturing them, but also putting them into relatively dangerous situations at the same time. It’s complicated, but it’s fascinating to watch. She’s a girl who comes to the door topless, red wine still staining her lips and teeth in the wee hours of the morning, but who can lead a singalong with her motley crew, and it all makes perfect sense.
B: And in closing, since this is our first ever Required Viewing while a picture is still in limited release, I think we should each weigh in on our basic reaction: should people see it? Did we love it? Hate it? Is The Beef back?
I’ll go first. I loved. this. movie. I had the curious experience of knowing I loved it while I was watching it, while simultaneously being aware that I could tell everyone I know to see this movie, but few would actually see it. That won’t stop me from telling them too. (I’ve chivvied no less than 20 people into watching Room and to a person they’ve thanked me, so my fire burns bright to do the same here. I love that this movie absolutely broke my heart and kept me up for hours as I pondered it over and over again. I love it even more for picking up the pieces of my shattered heart and stringing them back together. Oh, and Andrea Arnold is a badass for everything we’ve discussed so far, but also for shooting on film. (UPDATE: It wasn’t film because they shot tons and that’s super expensive, but the camera they did use boasts a “Film-like organic look.” I bought it and I’m not mad. I’m not even going to correct this beyond this note because the impression of film was so strong.) No one does that, but this gal did.
A: I had zero expectations. I kept thinking throughout this, “How is this going to end?” and I love what they did and didn’t show as a conclusion to this film. I also couldn’t stop thinking about it and there’s more than one song that I want to listen to on repeat. I can’t speak to prestige pictures and the likelihood of breakout actors, and the off-chance The Beef is back or just messing with us in an extended performance art piece, etc., but I know that this is a film that made me feel something, and that’s priceless. See it.