To put it simply, the thing that sets the plot of the new movie American Honey into motion is a lady boner.
Minutes into the film, its protagonist, Star (Sasha Lane), a magnetic young woman living in desperate poverty, sees Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a crusty, charismatic recruiter in an itinerant magazine-selling crew. She follows him into a grocery store to watch him from a distance. He jumps onto a counter to peacock for her. He drops his sparkly, jewel-encrusted cell phone, which glints much like the ready-to-fuck fireflies that appear later in the film. She retrieves the phone. He invites her to join his crew. She demurs, and returns to her sad life with her rapist guardian. She then decides to follow her boner, and runs away with the magazine crew.
Even in these early scenes, director and writer Andrea Arnold couples female desire with the threat of sexual violence. As Star navigates the world, she finds that her body is often just out of her control, a place of power and joy but also of strange and sometimes disturbing compromise. With American Honey, Arnold presents a complex picture of a young woman’s troubled exploration of her own lust, and resists tropes of victimization and empowerment. “Sex is a big part of our lives … for most people. And an important part of life, really important,” Arnold told BuzzFeed News. “There’s not a lot of female sexuality in films generally.”
Unlike many Hollywood victims, Star is never defined by her sexual abuse, although the character is clearly influenced by it as she wobbles uncertainly toward self-determination. Well into the film, Star has ecstatic sex for the first time with Jake, climbing on top of him in a stolen convertible. Arnold recalled that LaBeouf “took control” during the first take and she stopped the scene to shift the power dynamic. “There’s not many reasons why I would do that, but that felt important to me,” she said. Sitting next to Arnold, Lane added, “I needed to be the one that… this is what I want, I’m in control.”
In a more alienating encounter, Star sells sex in an attempt to assert ownership over her body — the scene is uncomfortable for Star and the audience, as is Jake’s hypocritical fury over it. In his tantrum over her choice, Jake aligns himself with the other male characters who want Star on their own terms and not hers. When Jake, too, is not an ideal partner despite the ideal sex they’ve had, American Honey disturbs the simplistic narrative of female empowerment, questioning whether “empowerment” is even possible when objectification seems inevitable.
Although Arnold was reluctant to talk about the sex scenes in the movie, she said, “Sometimes I’ll read a script and it goes, ‘They make love.’ I think, ‘What does that mean?’ So much can go on in that situation! … For me, those moments are important in life and say a lot about the people involved, as much as all the other scenes. So when I write them, I’m quite specific.”
Her specificity — like Star removing a bloody tampon before sex or Jake’s solicitous “Can I come?” — is grounding and it’s all about Star.
The sex in American Honey is never tidy: For Star, it is both a hopeless trap and a source of boundless potential. The film shows an extreme example of a woman’s sexual awakening, but in Star’s sometimes confident, sometimes self-defeating, maybe impossible attempt to claim her life and her body, it feels real.