Dystopia’s Savage Grace: A Review of American Honey

Jean Baudrillard once made a startling claim, or perhaps it was more a kind of desecration of our shared illusion, when he stated that it is banal to claim that the apocalypse is in the future.  Rather, the apocalyptic event is something that occurred in the past.  It’s a kind of statement that is like tossing a rock into the middle of a pond, it’s ripples will find every edge of our social reality.  The apocalypse is everywhere around us, we just have to be able to call it for what it is: the dystopia of the present.  Much of our movie culture, as evidenced by the domination of Disney and Marvel blockbusters, is enthralled with fantasy, rosy hopes, and glossy, polished reflections of our spectacle. It takes a special motion picture to tear the veil away and have the courage to find the dignity within the desert of the real.

Andrea Arnold’s recent film American Honey is a visionary film juxtaposing beautiful danger with tender mercies.  It is a hopeful, if harrowing journey, through our dystopian present, filmed in a kind of Dogma ’95 style with handheld cameras, available lighting, and a number of non-actors.  It evokes the early films of Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier, and especially the films of Harmony Korine like Kids and Spring Breakers.  American Honey is a film about a poor young woman named Star, (Sasha Lane), who departs her family to go on an adventure with a group of poor white ragamuffins to sell magazines town to town. They cram into a 15-seater van, drink bottles of vodka, smoke pot, subsist on Doritos, Slim Jims and energy drinks, listen to lots of rap music, and at times getting into spontaneous bacchanalian festivals complete with bonfires, fist fights and streaking. And sometimes they do actual “work,” embarking on door-to-door missions two by two, ostensibly to sell magazines. These young adults have no prospects or culture or dreams, live an entirely nomadic, peripatetic life in a society and economy that has no answer for them, where education, career, property of any kind, are a distant dream that they don’t even bother with.

Arnold’s camera takes its time soaking in each scene, into the hollow despair of this altern world.  There is an implicit awareness that movies are generally not made about the poor disenfranchised.  The verite style highlights an immersive ultra-realism, stripping away the glossy, overproduced trappings of culture industry typical of contemporary film. It reminded me of the aesthetic import of realism of post-war Italian film, for instance, which in its own sense was postapocalyptic.  Films like The Bicycle Thief sought to evoke an experience of the real after decades of fascistic romanticism.  But Arnold explores this world without pity and without pretensions or Dickensian-type pedantry or sentimentality to browbeat the audience.  Instead of telling, she shows, which is the hallmark of great film making.

Arnold has a flair for desolate landscapes, previously demonstrated in films like Fish Tank. captures the dystopia of the present, and the sublime humanistic grace of its hero by giving us a raw, nearly improvisational, style.  Aside from a few of the lead roles like the tattooed and rat-tailed Shia Laboef, the supporting cast is comprised of real millennial non-actors. It gives the film a raw edge and tension throughout that something horrible is about to happen. But is against the void of these landscapes of K-Marts, derelict hotels, oil fields and truck stops, that the protagonist paradoxically finds her soul while Laboef indulges in the lifestyle and the game of the hustle.  Star doesn’t take to it, however, and finds ways to be truthful to others, value friendship, and shows discrete charity to others.  In a whirlwind of desolate landscapes, she maintains a fragile dignity, a kind of saint on an errant pilgrimage with a troupe of circus rascals. Star reminds me of a couple of other saintly characters who amble through repressive or violent landscapes – Emily Watson’s Bess in Breaking the Waves, and Clive Owen’s Theo in Children of Men. Like Theo, Star has a subtle animal magnetism, in a few scenes she is either liberating a bee trapped on the window, or baptismally releasing a turtle into the water.

It’s been said that American Honey is a film about hope for a generation. I won’t spoil it for you, but when the reason for the film’s title appears in a scene near the end of the movie, it will be chillingly apparent. If hope springs eternal, it springs in the interstitial spaces within the desert of the real.  It springs forth in our friendships, manifesting with each other in our uprooted spontaneous communities and gypsy camps after all social institutions have been obliterated.

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