Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in American Honey. / Trailer
Joshua Leibner,  February 24, 2017

Red and Blue Highways

Two films about American dreaming and American drifting

Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in American Honey. / Trailer
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If all goes according to the script, a Hollywood Beautiful Person will open the envelope at the Oscars for this year’s Best Picture and the title La La Land will trip off his or her tongue.

Cue rapturous applause as the humbled producers wax grateful that such an unlikely film has received Hollywood’s highest accolade.

Fourteen Academy Award nominations is nothing to sneer at. Neither is director Damien Chazelle’s undeniably impressive achievement with his rom-com musical valentine to Blue State America. La La Land opened in limited release on December 9 after previews at film festivals generated excitement. It opened nationwide two weeks later to capitalize on the Christmas rush. It has taken in more than $300 million so far, on a $30 million budget.

Another film in 2016 attempted the same kind of word-of-mouth buzz through the festivals and also won critical acclaim. That film was called American Honey. British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s unusual story follows a young and profane crew of roving magazine-subscription sellers driving through the middle of America into the rural plains—a million miles from cultured and urbane Los Angeles.

To date, American Honey has brought in only $1.8 million at the box office.

La La Land and American Honey offer two different movie versions of the age-old “American Dream” longing. We would like to think that this dream that inhabits and informs our nation springs from a similar shared culture—but it doesn’t. The American Dream manifests itself differently based on who is doing the dreaming and whom that dream is being presented to.

Recently, La La Land has received its inevitable backlash, in part due to its somewhat plodding and predictable plot, but, more tellingly, due to its very white-centric story. La La Land’s setting is multicultural Los Angeles, as experienced by its two winsomely white leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. As it knowingly mines both American cinematic and music history, the film is looking at how Hollywood presents America to itself. Its ethos is solid Blue State America, as filtered through the lens of privileged, educated whiteness. For all its brilliance and visual deftness, La La Land also suggests something about Blue America’s problem.

The story follows the romance of two quintessential L.A. dreamers. Stone is a small-towner named Mia who comes to the Big City and is waiting tables in a Hollywood studio restaurant. But, of course, she aspires to be the kind of “it” actress that Emma Stone is already. Meanwhile, surly Gosling plays Sebastian, an uncompromising jazz keyboardist who is pissed off at a fake world. He demands success on his own terms by keeping jazz’s old-school traditions alive in the age of commercial dreck.

A young woman named Star escapes her Texas home and takes to the road with a magazine sales crew.

Many of us who watch La La Land (including members of the Academy) recognize the characters as people we run across daily. For parents watching the film, Mia and Sebastian are our kids born with some degree of wherewithal who have found a home for themselves in the embrace of an urban America where every day provides a new opportunity to be surrounded by the culture, art, and aspirations of the millions around them. The opening dance sequence amid the stopped cars on the elevated 105 freeway soaring above L.A. speaks to this communal urban belief.

On the other end of the “reality” spectrum is American Honey—nominated for zero Oscars, but which nonetheless remains 2016’s most interesting film. Director Andrea Arnold stumbled across acting novice Sasha Lane to play a young woman tellingly named Star, who escapes her desultory Texas home by going on the road with a bunch of lower-class white flotsam. In fact, most of the cast of the film are non-actors who seem to understand their parts all too well. Star learns the hustling ropes from Jake, a scruffy, live-by-his-wits pretty boy played with erratic finesse by Shia LaBeouf. Their ultimate dreams are not nearly as defined as those of Mia and Sebastian.

When Star ditches her older-sister duties caretaking her ne’er-do-well mother’s children, she flees to the open road of American possibilities. When the magazine crew leader Krystal, played by Riley Keough (the granddaughter of Elvis Presley) asks her, “You got anyone who’s gonna miss you?” Star’s response is, “Not really.”

And just as quick, Krystal answers, “O.K. good. You’re hired.”

We then enter a gritty world of white kids that we don’t see often in the nation’s theaters. None of these kids attend the suburban high school you’d see in a John Hughes movie or are part of an upscale cool kid world a la Risky Business. They speak urban “ghetto” slang. They listen, dance, and thrive to rap. They ink their skin with gun tats.

When the crew rolls by Kansas City, they marvel at the big buildings and whip out their cameras. One of the kids says it’s like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Each of the kids has their own reasons for ending up in their seat in the van. They go door to door with their inflated magazine prices but seem to have no life direction. There’s no tomorrow, just today.

We are granted a sublime moment when the crew gets to the Badlands and they stare at the severe landscape in silent awe. It serves as a beautiful metaphor for their own ragged lives. The crew tours America’s primordial wilderness, long since cleared by Lewis and Clark and transformed into the cheap, crappy culture that followed, but we never forget that we are in the presence of kids. Arnold imbues her film with the sights and sounds of nature—the wind, insects, water, the sky, the landscape of the world before civilization.

The landscape inevitably gives way to bland Americana. The motels. The fast food. The indistinguishable suburban tract housing. The country’s majestic, grand open spaces inevitably spill into the Red State small-town banalities that nurture the lowest common denominator consumerism.

American Honey takes us through the landscape of the same down-and-out places we saw in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) or Winter’s Bone (2010). The people are the inhabitants of what folks on the Blue coasts think of as Trumplandia—where people “beast” shellfish or skin squirrels for food. Those who inhabit these places are scary to Blue State sorts not just because they are so poor, but because their dreams are so aimless, so depressingly hopeless. This wariness has given us the poison valentine to Blue State elitism that is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

In stark contrast to La La Land, the exuberant dancing displayed in American Honey is not meant to be anything but honest. Star first becomes captivated by Jake and the crew when she witnesses a spontaneous, manic dance to the sad, desperate beats of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” on top of a Walmart check-out counter. There is line dancing and gangster rap. The soundtrack is filled with everything from Steve Earle to Lil Wayne to Bruce Springsteen to Big Sean to the Dead Kennedys. In fact, the only American musical idiom not represented in American Honey is the “classic” version of jazz we hear in La La Land—but the kids enthusiastically embrace jazz’s evolution in the guise of the ubiquitous hip-hop that is American Honey’s heartbeat. The broken and angry soundtrack gives voice to the characters whose lives seem so internal and so unarticulated.

There are no overt politics in La La Land. But we know that the characters in that film are definitely not Trump supporters. The American Honey kids, however, could easily be frustrated Trump supporters—if they were asked. The blue-collar rural people, the oil workers, or the city cowboys we come across can look like kickass Trump voters. These hardened American characters are as confined and defined by their own down-and-out environment as their opposite numbers—such as those lampooned in the now-famous Saturday Night Live Brooklyn bubble sketch—are defined by their urbane insularity.

Star is drawn to the crew when she sees a spontaneous, manic dance to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” break out on top of a Walmart check-out counter.

La La Land is a smarty-pants film. That phrase is not intended to disparage it. Along with most of Blue State America, I appreciate any stab at aesthetic intellectualism. It is all too easy to become disheartened by the sheer amount of unambitious crap that makes up so much of our commercial and political existence. And Chazelle makes the most of his paean to the American musical past, with homages to the happy fantasy of Stanley Donen’s and Gene Kelly’s supreme achievement, Singin’ in the Rain, but also with nods to L.A.’s dark side as found in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. All really cool and engaging.

The film’s glaring misstep could have been avoided by recasting at least one of the primary leads. As it is, two white actors play out their self-absorbed romance as L.A.’s grand rainbow of cultural and ethnic diversity serves merely as backdrop. A non-white lead would have made a wry and knowing comment on the archetypes of both the Hollywood and American Dream. This deficiency is why the film finally feels out of step with America now.

American Honey is a snapshot of a country that we can see when we examine the Red-Blue map of America and realize how great a swath of the physical geography (however sparsely populated) is sympathetic to Trump. Anyone who drives the vast expanse of the nation can gain a visceral appreciation that the tiny towns that dot the prairies and the rolling hills are an America that doesn’t exist in the boundaries of the 405 freeway and I-10 in Los Angeles. It’s there you would have seen all the Trump signs before the election.

In La La Land, Sebastian and Mia eventually both realize their dreams. The sacrifice they make in fulfilling their respective goals is surrendering each other. Although Jake and Star also give up on each other by their film’s conclusion, the hopes of their worlds trail off more ambiguously and bleakly.

Hollywood gave a bittersweet ending to La La Land’s audience with a hopeful fantasy assurance of a world that might have been—and who knows? Maybe in some future sequel Mia and Sebastian can have it all, together. But independent cinema gave Jake and Star the dignity of reality. These are characters who would look at Sebastian and Mia and observe that even before “success” their lives enjoyed a level of comfort, stability, and assurance that Jake and Star won’t ever reach.

It’s odd to think that American Honey was the film that got little exposure outside the Blue bubbles. What would it be like if both La La Land and American Honey played as a double feature for a national audience made up of Red State and Blue State viewers? An exchange of ideas after that screening would be beneficial to the country—even as each audience would return “home” afterward to different Americas.

Joshua Leibner is a Hollywood screenwriter and a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught in public high schools in New York City and Los Angeles. 

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