Andrea Arnold shines a spotlight on the new American teen dream

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Shia LaBeouf as Jake (left) and Sasha Lane as Star in ‘American Honey’ Rating: R; Grade: A

“American” is such a loaded word in contemporary society. Type it into a search engine and it appears as a tag, a descriptive label attached to credit card, airlines, clothing, and universities. It is a brand, conferring elite worldwide status.

When you listen to politicians, you get different impressions. Everybody wants to define it for themselves. It is used to signify a collective consciousness, (in theory) the spirit of a people and a country. But now, it seems the word has been ripped free of that democratic ideal, shifting instead to something more individualistic, not what “we” mean, what “we” are, rather what “you” or “I” say it is—what your party representative says, tries to make you believe.

I still embrace the definition from Cornel West, laid out in the introduction to “The Cornel West Reader” which I have sampled to death in sound bytes for years. I dream of his “American” sensibility, that speaks of America as “a romantic project,” that is “fueled with a religion of vast possibility.” The phrases continue to flow, poetically, as he calls America “a fragile experiment” yielding “forms of modern self-making and self-creating unprecedented in human history.”

Sounds dreamy, right?

Andrea Arnold, the writer-director of “American Honey,” presents a modern reflection of the unconscious dreaming that exists in the psyche of Star (Sasha Lane), the film’s teen protagonist. Very little is directly said about the idea or the philosophical principle of “America” in the film, as Star hooks up with a roving band of rebels, kids posing as a traveling magazine sales team. They might as well be selling air, pots and pans, or bridges, because the selling isn’t the thing that drives them or makes them who they are—and believe me, they are something else. They are this generation’s definition of what it means to be both “American” and “dreamers.” They just don’t know or talk about it in that way.

Arnold’s film and these kids speak in defiant words and actions, boldly proclaiming nothing more than a desire to “be.” Hedonism provides them with the turbo boost to party hard, bend or break laws, and love and fight amongst themselves with abandon.

Of course, what attracts Star to this lifestyle initially is far more basic, and, routinely, romantic. She’s drawn to Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the unkempt leader of this ragtag group. She follows them into a superstore, with her two young siblings in tow, riveted by the ease and charisma of Jake’s free and playful spirit. He dances to the music piping out of the store’s speakers, hops up on the conveyor belt at the checkout counter, and lustily makes eyes at her, daring her to approach him. And when she does, he pitches her on the idea that she should become a part of this group.

It was funny because all I heard was “Dream, dream, dream, dream.” That’s the lazy chant at the beginning of “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” by The Everly Brothers. “When I want you in my arms / when I want you and all your charms / whenever I want you / all I have to do is dream / dream, dream, dream.”

Wistful longing, from a bygone era maybe, but the sentiment could just as easily replace the frenetic indie, hip-hop, and pop influences of today. Remove the beats and explicit expressions, and what remains, what lies beneath, is that very same “dream / dream, dream, dream.”

And, it goes without saying that Star packs her few belongings and hitches her wagon with Jake and the crew, soon discovering that Jake, and everyone, works for Krystal (Riley Keough), the older sister/mother hen of the band who serves as an example of what happens when you age, and the dream succumbs to its slow and inevitable death.

America stops self-making and self-creating, and simply feeds off the collective lifeblood of its people. The journey of “American Honey” is as rootless and anti-plot-driven as its characters. Each stop becomes as anonymous as the last, and each scam, a slight reconfiguring of the one played on the previous sucker.

But, along the way, someone asks Star about her dreams, what she imagines her future will look like, and it is fascinating to see how confused she is by the question, the very idea that someone would even ask such a thing. We imagine that when she started on this crazy adventure, it was all a dream to her that gradually faded.

Arnold uses Star, to remind us of our own dreams and to recall the sweetness of this fragile experiment that binds us together.

AMERICAN HONEY [R] A

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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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