Trouble in the heartland: class and culture in American Honey

by Milo Sweedler

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) is a film of its time. Released in the United States four days after the first presidential debate between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump, the film provides a fascinating snapshot of Middle America in the 2010s. Depicting a group of down-and-out youth who travel through the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions nobody wants, the film presents an image of the U.S. heartland as a mosaic of posh suburbs, upscale subdivisions, conglomerations of dilapidated bungalows, vast expanses of farmland, and a seemingly endless string of truckstops, roadside motels, convenience stores, and fast-food restaurants. This social landscape is seen alternately through the windows of the van that transports the magazine crew from sales location to sales location, and up-close and in-person as the sales associates go door-to-door hawking their wares. A veritable tour of the “red states” at the core of the country – the ones that would vote for Trump in the coming election – the movie presents the heartland as a socially fractured region characterized by extremes of wealth inequality.

An early scene in American Honey shows the lavish lifestyle of people living in one of the U.S.’ wealthiest suburbs.

A later scene brings into relief the abject living conditions of the rural poor.

The mag crew, a motley group of misfits recruited on the road, hail from places as remote from one another as California, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Florida, and New Jersey. Situated on the lowest rung of the social ladder, these marginalized youth show no class-consciousness. As the lyrics of one of their favorite rap songs would have it, their aspirations are, in effect, to “make money, get turnt” (the latter term meaning “excited,” “adrenalized,” or “intoxicated”).[1] [open endnotes in new window] Aspiring to the American dream in the era of the American nightmare, the mag crew emblematizes the plight of countless millennials at a time when underemployment and precarious employment are becoming the rule rather than the exception.

One of the striking features of this socially conscious film about a subculture of underprivileged youth is its exuberance. The ubiquitous hip-hop, country, and indie rock music playing at high volume as the van traverses the U.S. midlands contributes to the jubilant feel of the film. So too do its depictions of social relations within the multicultural mag crew. Although far from being unambiguous, the film’s representation of these relations skews toward a vision of radical inclusion. This inclusivity is also emblematic of youth culture in the new millennium.

This article examines the vision of Middle America transmitted in Arnold’s thought-provoking film. Taking as its point of departure film critic Pamela Hutchinson’s remark that the movie’s mixed-race heroine, Star (Sasha Lane), is a new Dorothy, the article begins, following a film overview and a gloss of its critical reception, with a comparative analysis of American Honey’s worldview and the one presented in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).

Pamela Hutchinson makes the case that American Honey is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz (1939). L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) functions as a particularly illuminating intertext for Arnold’s film.

Interpreted in the second half of the twentieth century as a national allegory of the post-depression United States, as the country emerged from the Panic of 1893, Baum’s novel presents interesting parallels with Arnold’s post-recession film, released in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007–09. Concentrating, in particular, on the movie’s depiction of the affluent suburbs of Kansas City and its portrayal of people living in abject poverty in rural South Dakota, I argue that the film gives audio-visual form to the sharp socio-economic divisions that Thomas Frank describes in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004) and that Thomas Piketty analyzes on a global scale in Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013).

I then examine the film’s portrayals of its two other main characters, the mag crew’s top seller, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who initially introduces himself as being “Donald Trump-ish,” and Krystal (Riley Keough), the shrewd owner of the mag-crew franchise, a self-described “Southern girl” (or “real American honey”), who treats Jake as her personal boy toy. The examination of the film’s three main figures, who are involved in a love triangle that exposes Star to Krystal’s wrath, leads to analyses of the film’s depictions of sexuality and race relations. The article concludes with a meditation on the split between class-consciousness and multicultural awareness in both the film text and its national context, and ponders the ramifications of this split in the purview of the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. While the heartland figured prominently in discussions of the 2016 election, the millennial generation – Gen Y or Z – has figured prominently in discussions of the 2020 election. Arnold’s film contributes to our understanding of this potentially powerful political force.

The marginally employed members of the open and inclusive mag crew emblematize the millennial generation. The love triangle between Star, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), and Krystal (Riley Keough) exposes Star to Krystal’s vindictiveness.

Film overview

Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, American Honey depicts several weeks in Star’s life as the young woman travels north from Oklahoma to the Dakotas with Krystal’s itinerant magazine sales team. Part road movie, part coming-of-age story, and part social-issue drama, the film opens with a striking scene of the eighteen-year-old Star dumpster diving with her two pre- teen wards, Kelsey and Rubin (Summer Hunsaker and Brody Hunsaker).

The film opens with a striking scene of Star and her two pre-teen wards dumpster diving for dinner. Nobody stops for Star and her wards when they try to hitchhike home.

Finding the fixings for a full family dinner in the trash that squishes under her feet, Star gathers the children and starts her hitchhike home. Nobody stops for the unprepossessing threesome, but when a van full of rambunctious youth blasting hip-hop from the vehicle’s open window passes them, one of the passengers mooning the hitchhikers from the backseat while another one (the not-yet-identified Jake) gives Star an inviting look from the front, they follow the troupe to the local K-Mart.

Star is captivated by the rowdy bunch, who spontaneously break into dance when contemporary pop star Rihanna’s upbeat “We Found Love” starts playing over the store’s loudspeakers. Exchanging a look and a smile with the ebullient Jake, whose glittery cell phone bounces out of his chest pocket while he pogo dances on the K-Mart checkout counter, she then follows this intriguing figure out into the parking lot. She returns his phone, and he offers her a job. Star initially declines Jake’s offer to join the traveling magazine crew, but after fending off her drunken father, who gropes her while she prepares the family’s evening meal, she hauls Kelsey and Rubin to the local roadhouse, where their mother is line dancing with a dozen or so country-western women, and abandons the kids with their incredulous mom.

The ebullient Jake captivates Star as he pogo dances on the K-Mart checkout counter. Other crewmembers dance in the background. Jake proposes “a business opportunity” to Star in the K-Mart parking lot.

The rest of the film narrates the adventures of Star and the mag crew as they make their way north through the U.S. heartland. The loosely scripted plot follows the team from Muskogee, Oklahoma, where they pick up Star, to the wealthy suburbs of Kansas City and from there to locations in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

As the film progresses, we glean the sales team’s daily routine. The crew breaks into groups of two for the day. The van driver drops off the pairs in particular neighborhoods at the beginning of the day, each twosome goes door-to-door peddling magazine subscriptions to residents on its route, and the team reconvenes at the end of the day at a designated pick-up point for transportation back to the motel.

Arnold’s inspiration for the mag crew came from a 2007 New York Times article on the topic by Ian Urbina. The film incorporates many details of Urbina’s article, from the “violence, drug use, indebtedness and cheating of customers” to which many sellers interviewed by Urbina testify, to the weekly ritual called “Losers’ Night” in the film, when the two team members with the lowest sales are forced to fight each other.[2] Neither Urbina’s article nor Arnold’s film shies away from presenting the hardships and challenges that the itinerant sales associates face on a daily basis. However, both the journalist and the filmmaker also draw attention to the attraction that the freewheeling lifestyle of endless partying holds for many recruits, and the bonds that form among team members during their time together on the road. Urbina, for example, cites a 23-year-old former seller who talks openly about the sex, drugs, and alcohol that filled the mag crew’s nights. “But there’s more to crew than that,” this former seller insists. She recounts “having made some of her best friends, including her fiancé, working on the crew.”[3]

The film amply depicts the sales agents’ use of methamphetamine, marijuana, off-brand whisky, and cheap vodka, the sexual encounters that take place between team members, and the camaraderie that develops within the group. Even the anecdote about the young sales associate meeting her fiancé in the mag crew is woven obliquely into the narrative.

Mag-crew associates photographed for the Ian Urbina article that inspired Arnold’s film (photos: Sandy Huffaker for the New York Times).

The principal romantic relationship explored in the film is the one that develops between Star and Jake. Assigned to shadow the sales team’s power agent when she joins the group, the newcomer follows Jake door-to-door in order to learn the tricks of the trade. The two of them follow through on their mutual attraction, having sex on multiple occasions during their daily outings. However, Jake is wary of making their relationship public. Citing Krystal’s rule against relationships in the mag crew – a rule that Krystal does not apply to herself and Jake, as numerous scenes between the franchise owner and her boy toy render obvious – Jake informs Star that “this relationship thing with me and you [...] it’s not happening.” When Star asks Jake for clarification, he explains:

“We just can’t talk about it ’cause it’s, um... She’s got this thing. She says, you know, love is bad for business. So there’s no relationships in the mag crew.”

The two lovers continue to pursue their relationship in fits and starts in the margins of the magazine crew, but they do so as discreetly as they can. Indeed, this on-again-off-again relationship constitutes the movie’s principal plotline, as Star and Jake negotiate their mutual affection, their insecurities and resentments, their jealousies, and their individual senses of self-interest and self-preservation.

The on-again-off-again romance between Star and Jake drives American Honey’s plot. Star and Jake wordlessly reconcile through the van window after one of their serial fallings-out.

The film’s open-ended conclusion, in which the two lovers wordlessly reconcile following one of their serial fallings-out, leaves us wondering how the two of them might fare as a couple in the future. Their aspirations to buy a little house and settle down, which each expresses as an individual dream without explicitly naming the other as the envisioned partner in this idyllic future, remain an unfulfilled fantasy when the film reaches its narrative conclusion and the closing credits start flashing on the screen.

Part of what makes this social drama/road movie-cum-coming-of-age/love story so captivating is the sense of authenticity exuded in the film. Although it is a fictional narrative with a plot, a screenplay of sorts, and paid actors playing imaginary characters in simulated situations, it feel like a slice of life recorded by a cinema journalist embedded in an actual mag crew. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s freeform handheld camerawork accounts in no small measure for the film’s quasi-documentary feel. So too do the true-to-life performances Arnold elicits from her troupe of mostly first-time actors. Many of these neophyte actors were selected for their socio-cultural proximity to the role they play in the film. The cast for the mag crew, lead actor Sasha Lane included, is comprised largely of nomadic young adults living on the fringes of society, whom Arnold recruited in shopping mall parking lots, at skate parks, and on public beaches – the very locations that informal employers such as mag-crew franchisees prowl to scout recruits.[4] Once she had assembled her largely street-cast troupe of actors and moved on to the shooting stage, Arnold refrained from giving cast members a complete film script. Rather than handing them a screenplay full of lines to memorize, the filmmaker passed the actors scene notes on the day of shooting.[5] The latter approach surely accounts to a large degree for the spontaneous feel of the onscreen interactions.

I therefore find baffling Sight & Sound critic Simran Hans’s charge that “the dialogue is often unnaturally expositional.” I find no evidence of “the script’s [alleged] lack of subtlety.”[6] Like Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, I perceive the movie as “a bulletin – seductive, alarmed, fascinated – told from the inside.” “The film’s allure is that it’s not just a story, it’s an immersion,” Gleiberman writes, “a vérité rhapsody about the live pulse of kids in the age of corporate nihilism.”[7] Faced with the myriad decisions a filmmaker must make when directing a movie, Arnold opts in virtually every case for whatever casting strategy, shooting technique, or directorial approach might make the film look and feel more like a cinéma vérité documentary and less like a work of narrative fiction. The movie comes across as an audio-visual status report on the heart of the nation, as seen from the perspective of subaltern youth living on the margins of society.

Critical reception

Many reviewers lauded the film’s penetrating vision of contemporary youth culture. Tim Grierson, for example, writing in Rolling Stone, calls it “a Zeitgeist-y snapshot of youth culture.”[8] Carlos Aguilar, in Movie Maker, characterizes it as “a ravishing vision of youth adrift.”[9] Gleiberman, for his part, argues that it “takes the temperature of youth culture in a way that no movie has in years.”[10] Other critics praised the film for its sensitive portrayal of female sexuality. The movie presents “some of the most truthful, intimate and, importantly, erotic depictions of female sexuality” that Simran Hans, for example, has “seen on screen in a long time.”[11] Still other reviewers, such as the New York Times’ Finn Cohen, admired the movie’s “portrayal of poverty in the United States and the country’s marginalized citizens.”[12] Pamela Hutchinson, writing in this vein, declares in her Sight & Sound review that “this brilliant film draws the outline of a bleak economic landscape.”[13]

However, the film also had its detractors. Several critics objected to what they considered to be Arnold’s overbearing ideological perspective. Richard Brody, for instance, writing in the New Yorker, asserts that “Arnold doesn’t just depict characters in the fullness of their experience; she is brandishing an attitude.” In his opinion, the filmmaker

“interposes that attitude between her characters and her viewers, filtering her characters’ voices out of the transaction; in effect, she speaks for them.”[14]

In a similar vein, Stephanie Zacharek, writing in Time, argues that

“there’s a fine line between dramatizing human circumstances in a way that leaves us shaken or joyful, or both, and making a carefully calibrated sociology project. American Honey, its good intentions aside, tilts toward the latter.”[15]

This assessment, especially in Zacharek’s eloquent phrasing, has a grain of truth to it. Although some may argue, as Sean O’Hagan does in the Guardian, that “American Honey injects a visceral human element into the spaces where hard reporting doesn’t,” the film undoubtedly does have a political bias that it wears on its proverbial sleeve.[16]

Is that necessarily a bad thing? Some of the great works in the history of cinema have been motivated by political passion. Leaving aside right-wing classics such as D. W. Griffith’s unabashedly racist The Birth of a Nation (1915) and John Ford’s arch-conservative The Searchers (1956), a short list of politically engaged films would include these:

The famous scene of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp feasting on boiled shoe in The Gold Rush (1925). Maud (Carey Mulligan) toils at the Glasshouse Laundry in Sarah Gavron’s class-conscious story of the Votes for Women campaign in Edwardian England in Suffragette (2015).

American Honey is significantly more nuanced and subtle than any of those films.

Moreover, although Arnold lays bare social inequalities in the contemporary United States, she is profoundly ambiguous in her portrayal of the mag crew. American Honey delineates a socially fractured culture without turning the outcasts into heroes, victims, or villains. The film narrative unfolds against the backdrop of a heartland that is depressingly bleak, even in the suburbs of the wealthy. At the same time, it captures a lack of cynicism in its young characters, despite the obvious hardships of their lives. The film succeeds in depicting both visions simultaneously, a rare achievement.