A teenage runaway, Star, and a lonely truck driver discuss their innermost dreams. The trucker wants to visit the ocean and Star wants to have a loving home with lots of children. Bruce Springsteen’s cover of The Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” plays in the background. The lyrics repeat like a sacred incantation, “come on, we gotta keep the fire burning. Come on and dream baby, dream.” The two loner characters share a communal bond over this call to arms. Star happily recognizes the song from her crush frequently singing it and the trucker grins and proclaims his longtime love for “The Boss.” I feel the use of Springsteen’s cover is no coincidence. His lyrical landscape reflects the film’s larger questions about the American Dream. American Honey plays out like a typical Springsteen song: a road movie that focuses on the lives on the lives of the young and disenfranchised. The poster image of the film seems ripped straight out of the lyrics of “Thunder Road,” where young teens roll down the window and let the wind blow back their hair. The car and the highway, frequent images in his songs, serve as the key to the teenager’s freedom and visions. But American Honey complicates where the open road is ultimately taking its characters. Director Andrea Arnold also uses a wide variety of singers and songs to mirror her image of America and comment on the idea of having dreams beyond the limits of your class and social standing.
American Honey exposes the stark dichotomy between Midwestern squalor and opulence. The magazine crew traverses a series of decaying small towns filled with rubbish-strewn trailer parks and hellish oil fields where they meet sweaty, overworked oil rig cowboys and dirty abandoned children with drugged-out mothers. To contrast these devastating locales, Star encounters the privileges of suburban comfort and the rich: elaborate birthday parties, expensive liquor, and sprawling decadent mansions with beautiful outdoor pools. Arnold also exposes the façade of white suburban “Christian kindness” during a scene where a woman takes pity on Star and her boyfriend selling the magazines. But ultimately she cannot handle the uncomfortable realities of their lifestyle and she turns them away. Arnold’s images of the gross difference between the 1% and America’s working class underbelly aptly align with Springsteen’s music. We see them time and time again throughout his career, whether from the Wrecking Ball album that critiques the leaders of the reckless economic practices leading to the 2008 crisis, “The greedy thieves who came around, and ate the flesh of everything they found, whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now,” or the quiet narrative of “Mansion on the Hill,” where the narrator gazes from afar at the splendor of a rich home.
Star is a part of a team of “magazine vendors,” a vagabond group young kids who travel the Midwest selling magazine subscriptions. They live a frugal and hedonistic existence, traveling door to door for an income based purely on happenstance. Day to day they scrap for cash to hand over to their exploitative boss who divvies the pay out at her own discretion. When not selling magazines, they smoke pot, drink, or trade sexual partners. Windows down and radios up, their van traverses America’s heartland as they sing along to rap and hip-hop songs that fetishize the ultimate American fantasy: mass amounts of wealth and fame. While these kids may idolize such a lifestyle, they seem content to continue on their hapless existence. They have nothing; therefore there is nothing for them to lose. The focus on the quotidian existence of people struggling to make ends meet is in line with the songs of Springsteen’s canon. Yet, the teens of American Honey are quite unlike the disillusioned dock workers or garage mechanics of his songs. Rather than facing against the discomforts of the working-class grind, they seem to be complacent in their existence of freewheeling abandon. Andrea Arnold uses a “street cast” to add an authenticity to their chaotic lives. Many of the actors were drunk teenagers or wandering adults Arnold happened to find on the beach, the street, or a store parking lot.
One of the final scenes features the band of teens singing along to “American Honey” by Lady Antebellum. The lyrics express a desire to escape the adult life and return to the sweetness of childhood. Their impoverished lives likely led them to grow up to fast, but the film does not hit this message over the head or turn the film into an overwrought social drama. We get a small sense of Star’s background in the beginning, where we see her taking care of children who may or may not be her direct siblings and fighting with her mother who only cares about getting drunk at the local bar. Perhaps that is why Star dreams of having children, to break the cycle and provide a better life for them. However, American Honey portrays the road to that dream complicated, hard to reconcile with in the vast landscape of a divided America. The answers seem to lie in the journey and not necessarily in the destination. Each stop they make for their sales never seems to get the characters any further than where they began.
The “American Honey” scene also demonstrates how Arnold uses music as a form for the characters to connect beyond their seemingly soulless existence of partying, or (as in the trucker scene) the loneliness and confusion wrought from poverty and the working-class grind. The simple pleasure of listening seems to be the only true, stable, and joyous thing in their lives. Many scenes feature the misfit group singing and dancing passionately along to the radio. The song’s lyrics express their emotional states when they themselves cannot. Music offers them a community that the world, fueled by harsh capitalist values, scorns them from. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” is a notable example. The teenagers hear it on the radio while in a convenience store. They transform the simple store into a freeing wonderland as they burst out dancing. The lyrics also reflect Star’s idealized visions of her romance with Jake, finding love in their hopeless place of squalor.
The raucous camaraderie of this band of misfits carries the film. While the characters of American Honey may not have the same fiery drive of Springsteen’s characters to get out of their situation, they still wrestle with the ideas of the American Dream. They struggle to make sense of an America so divided. How can they forge their own space in it without the means to begin? The film, like Springsteen’s music, shows us the good and bad of America. But Arnold uses all kinds of music, from his classic rock, to slow country, and modern rap or techno. The characters form a strong emotional bond to this music, providing them a sense of community in the world that seems to abandon the disenfranchised. Arnold forms a soundscape that is as eclectic and complicated as America can be.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.