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In a scene from Andrea Arnold’s 2009 feature Fish Tank, Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin’” plays in the car while teenaged protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis), her single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), Joanne’s boyfriend Conor (Michael Fassbender), and Mia’s brother and sister ride together. Conor, soon to fall into an uneasy love triangle between mother and daughter, nimbly taps his fingers on the steering wheel to the chorus. The camera then pans to Mia as she stares straight ahead with a look of stoicism that must be maintained to bolster her rebellious nature—after a few beats she warms up and nods her head, the camera racks focus away from her as she looks out the window at the barren landscape. Andrea Arnold has a knack for breaking down even the most tenacious and rebellious of characters, their cool efficacy fading as they pulsate to the reverberance of the music. Similar to Celine Sciamma’s film Girlhood, which utilizes the Rihanna song “Diamonds” to culminate the motion of the protagonists dancing on a hotel bed with stolen dresses with the emotion of struggling to find the meaning of girlhood in the outskirts of France, Arnold’s use of music is a portal into the most intimate experiences of her characters. In Fish Tank, as well as American Honey, the diegetic music, combined with the motions of bobbing and dancing along, bring us startlingly close to the experiences of female adolescence.

Arnold introduces the main character of American Honey, Star (Sasha Lane) throwing her surrogate son cold chicken breast, the chicken breaking apart on the street only a few minutes later. This sequence establishes Sky’s misfortunes throughout the rest of the film where transient bits of happiness are the only relief to her hardships. After locking eyes with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a suburban convenience store, he invites her to travel to Kansas City with him and his feral gang. They travel in a truck, complete with a weed keychain on the window and a rat squirrel as a communal pet, to scam people of all socioeconomic statuses into buying magazines. Each stop brings with it a range of new personas, from a mother living in a giant mansion who laughs condescendingly when Jakes says he wants to go into politics, to children with an alcoholic mother whose fridge contains scant items of pizza and soda. The money of the ragtag gang goes to Krystal (Riley Keough) who pays for their motels and keeps them on the road. Somewhere in between the audacious dancing and the barren landscape, Star falls deeper and deeper in love with Jake, their relationship becoming tumultuous as Jake carelessly sleeps with Krystal (the leader of the gang). But his worst traits don’t seem to stop Star as she “fades into Jake,” like the Mazzy Star song that plays during their sex scene suggests, only to look out the window helplessly a few scenes later, feeling utterly alone despite the numerous people around her.

Arnold makes the viewer hyperconscious of American Honey’s soundtrack choices before even introducing the characters. We know almost nothing about Star as we experience her most personal inclinations through Rihanna’s “We Found Love” playing on the loudspeakers of a convenience store. The music creeps in from the background, and then, as if out of nowhere, becomes the very foundation of the aural landscape, seizing our collective attention. Jake (Shia LaBeouf) enters the frame and eyes protagonist Star (Sasha Lane), walking to the cash register, slyly glancing back at Star to confirm that he is the one she’s looking at. “Me? I’m the one?” he seems to say, through verbal gestures of pointing and feigned surprise, a negative signal of the arrogance that will come to define his character. Star sticks her tongue out in reply. Once through the checkout line Jake joins the throngs of dancing teenagers near the cash register, all of them acting as if they were at a drunken frat party instead of a suburban convenience store stocked with cat food and two-percent milk. A cashier threatens to call security, but the teenagers don’t stop dancing until they’re literally thrown out, “We Found Love” still pounding in their and our heads. The scene encompasses the voyage Arnold’s soundtrack is capable of taking us on. As we travel across the country with people who were recently strangers, the soundtrack offers a rhythm of self-discovery in Arnold’s vision of an alternate America. The truck, filled with Darth Vader jokes, rap music, and ribald humor, is a surrogate house; the passerby cowboys and truck drivers who cook steaks for Sky are surrogate friends.

Through the eyes of Sky, a foreigner to the realm of phallic humor, impromptu brawling and Rihanna-inspired dancing into which she has been thrust, the viewer possesses a unique relationship to the events on-screen, drawn in through Arnold’s emphatic application of music ranging from country ballads to contemporary rap hits. But this active, music video-like audiovisual experience is set into balance by Sky’s occasional loneliness and discomfort; as our identification figure, her sadness provokes the viewer toward a remove from the wild environment Arnold establishes for us. Sky spends most of the film seeking answers to unclear questions, such as when she rides in a truck of a potential magazine purchaser, but is late for her next delivery. “Dream Baby Dream” plays in the background as they ride in the car together, flipping through the truck driver’s family pictures as he asks, “What’s your dream?” “No one has ever asked me that before,” Sky says, surprised, but confident with her answer: “I want my own place. My own trailer. With a lot of trees.” Her answer is simplistic and homegrown, contrasting with the untamed and constantly shifting habitat the film sets up. Yet it is hard to imagine Sky dreaming of anything else, her dream fitting her like a glove. The film is able to coherently establish a tension between the latent desires of its protagonist and the mood of her surrounding environment.

While lying in a field with Jake later in the film, she nonchalantly turns over and asks, “Do you have any dreams?” He responds just as she did to the driver: “No one has ever asked me that before.” After holding off on showing Sky his dream, he finally pulls her aside and reveals a chest full of gold jewelry that he has stolen. Sky looks at a locket with an old black-and-white photograph still intact. “Do you think anyone will miss this?” “No,” Jake responds with certainty. (Another telling echo in the film’s dialogue: this is the same response Sky gave when she was asked by Krystal, the leader of their ragtag group, if anyone would miss herself.) His response provokes sadness in Star, as this is just one of the many examples of their contrasting values. Just like the song, “Dream Baby Big” Sky dreams of a future completely different to her present life, devoid of robbery and instability. Jake’s future encompasses the Lady Antebellum song “American Honey”, his free-spirit and carelessness for the feelings of anybody from himself taking center stage:

Ooo there’s a wild, wild whisper
Blowin’ in the wind
Callin’ out my name like a long lost friend
Oh I miss those days as the years go by
Oh nothin’s sweeter than summertime
And American honey
And American honey

In the final sequence of the film, the lines of Lady Antebellum’s “American Honey” are sung by Star and her surrogate family, singing of an America they have grown accustomed to through their days filled with motel beds and pickup trucks. Afterwards, the characters dance by the bonfire like they’re teenagers on the last day of summer camp enjoying their final taste of freedom from home. Star separates herself from the group, swimming to the middle of the lake and dunking her head under until ripples form. The audience holds their breath as they prepare for the worst, and then exhale with a sigh of relief as she throws back her head, looks to the side, and is left rapidly breathing. The ending is ambiguous—the music stops and the screen fades to black.