In analyzing current cinematic trends, one need only emphasize the word “trend”, supplying an additional “y”, to convey a particular style of filmmaking as embodied by A24, Annapurna Pictures, and several other production and distribution companies producing unique, contemporary films, often involving long shots dwelling upon neon signs or Slushees or other iconic American “trash”, fetishistically filming close-ups of half-pints of generic brand vodka being passed back and forth somewhere in the Midwest or South. Harmony Korine, the ur-auteur of trash Americana, crafted a new template for contemporary “heart of Mountain Dew America” films, first with Gummo and Kids and further polishing it with Spring Breakers, which actually made money while serving as at once a lacerating critique, fever dream, and stoned exhalation (and exaltation) of drugs and pleasure.
The fine aesthetic lines that must be traversed in order to pull off those kinds of films is perhaps what makes them so interesting and frustrating- at once anti-elitist, endeavoring to depict real life for young, lost people throughout the country, left to pick through signifiers of poverty such as seedy motels, gangsta rap and the aforementioned Mountain Dew- films such as American Honey, directed by Andrea Arnold, are mood pieces that at once loathe and love the convenience store sleaze that they depict. A thread throughout the film, unspoken, is that this is Real America- not a Hollywood production about some historical character but the contemporary, late capitalist environment where the homeless, drug addicted and abused exist alongside mainstream work-a-day society. The film mercifully lacks any kind of sociopolitical ideology- power struggles and hierarchy play out within the small group but they aren’t self-described anarchists or affiliated with any particular belief system, other than maybe Star Wars. Similar to other films in the genre, there is no attempt to intellectualize- if you’ve been there, you recognize it, if not, you can begin to understand a nomadic life of small highs, , where one’s tattoos and piercings limn personality.
There is also an element of slum tourism- an exaggerated narrative of cash, guns, booze and weed that has come to occupy a symbolic and near-mythic importance. The stuff of hip-hop videos, these familiar images of pleasure-seeking are reflected throughout youth culture, and serve to indicate authenticity, realness and truth.That the main character of American Honey is played by Sasha Lane, a Houston native discovered by the film’s director while sunbathing on a beach, adds a significant degree of verity to the picture- her face is extremely photogenic, betraying at once a stubborn, hard-scrabble defiance and a search for love and/or belonging. The director, a Brit, drove through the Midwest and South in preparation for the film, though the specific vision of “America” she references owes more to Spring Breakers, Terry Richardson and Complex Magazine- a music video slathering of imagery- than it does to lived experience.
The entire endeavor reminds me not only of a surfeit of other movies, but also Jean Baudrillard’s America, where notes the post-modern jumble of influences and architecture he finds in the American West. In America, he declares:
…the mirror phase has given way to the video phase. What develops around the video or stereo culture is not a narcissistic imaginary, but an effect of frantic self-referentiality, a short-circuit which immediately hooks up like with like, and, in doing so, emphasizes their surface intensity and deeper meaninglessness.
Shia LaBeouf’s somewhat fascinating career turn as an experimental visual and performance artist has yielded mixed results, and here it is difficult to separate the individual from his character, a winking, sly salesman. American Honey is intentionally saturated with familiar symbols and objects of capitalist excess and poverty, and LaBeouf himself takes on the qualities of a televisual totem, his scrappy salesmanship transcending the film as he winks at us, the viewers, knowing that he must be winning over a few despite his recent negative press.
American Honey is influenced as much by “real America” as the pop music playing from speakers throughout- car speakers, grocery store PA systems, jukeboxes. A naturally occurring commercial soundtrack heightens moments between its characters, a nod to the ambient soundscape of contemporary society, filled with Gucci Mane emanating from a passing car or Rihanna playing as you browse deodorant at Target. It is an America steeped in itself. While I’m not sure we can be any more steeped in our own excess, American Honey presents that sensation in a new, vibrant way, a film inspired by our cultural environment and contributing to it as a long, two and a half hour journey, at once a shallow music video and a visual poem of and for lost youth.