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The Tribal Landscapes of Andrea Arnold

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“Got anybody that’s gonna miss you?”

Like her 2009 feature film Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold’s 2016 drama American Honey follows a young girl in a state of becoming, seeking her own “tribe” in which to grow and learn. Parents and other authority figures are seen as absentee or unfeeling, and it’s only through returning to the primal nature of the tribe that children can transition into adulthood.

In comparing Arnold’s second feature to her fourth, there is a host of similarities. American Honey’s Star (Sasha Lane) and Fish Tank’s Mia (Katie Jarvis) are lone wolves. Mia lives in council housing with her foul-mouthed younger sister and a mother more content to believe her children are invisible. Star raises her siblings while her mother spends her evening’s line dancing in a bar. For Arnold, adults aren’t just out-of-touch with their children, they’re non-existent, content to act out the part of rebellious teens themselves while being reminded those days are gone. This leaves Star and Mia to act as adults themselves, more parents to their siblings than their actual birth-givers. In American Honey, Krystal asks the ultimate question of a keening youth seeking guidance: “Got anybody that’s gonna miss you?” Nobody will miss Star, and by leaving home, she’ll sever her emotional connection to her family, leaving her hopelessly adrift in a new world that probably won’t miss her either.

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Star finds herself attracted to the life that Jake (Shia LaBeouf) offers, as it allows her to inhabit the world of her own desires. The job, its opportunities for money and travel sound responsible to her; she can support herself and her siblings while having a chance that her lower economic status would not ordinarily allow for. However, the lack of significant oversight and hand-to-mouth status makes it an irresponsible and ultimately fruitless job that a teenager would believe yields opportunities. Star, in essence, gets to be an unruly teen in the safe confines of a mock “grown-up” profession.

Star discovers a group of misfits and castoffs selling magazines, all seeking their own iteration of the American Dream: to make money and live the high life — or at least a life devoid of parental rules and obligations. For Arnold, it is within the community of teens left to their own devices that the world is presented with all its messy contradictions in-tact. The group, collectively identified as 071 (denoting how many groups of the same faceless teens exist), are made up of members with their own reasons for escaping. They seek freedom and individual identity only by their ability to sell the most magazine subscriptions. They are presented as a tight-knit group. Littered throughout the film are scenes of the 071 dancing and singing. They have a team song, chants and other signifiers of their bond that denotes an air of exclusivity.

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But time and again, like any teenage clique, they are reminded of how expendable they are. Their clique changes on a dime, and their bond is only as strong as the dollar each individual makes. In a move similar to Lord of the Flies, “Loser Night” pits two of the lowest selling members into a physical fight for the opportunity to stay and live to sell again. Star, for all her own individual thoughts and desires, realizes that she is a cog in a wheel that’s been turning long before her. Krystal’s revelation that Jake earns extra pay for recruiting young girls illustrates the fact that Star is not special; her story isn’t unique, and it’s only through finding her own means of surviving and succeeding that her true worth is found.

This cliquish isolation manifests in a return to nature. The 071 spend much of their time on the road, a mix of bustling cities and lonely country landscapes. The group is alone no matter where they are. In Fish Tank, Mia finds a malnourished horse chained in a junkyard. Wasting away in a busy town with no one to appreciate it, the horse represents the coltish Mia. It is only through saving it that she can, in essence, save herself. The horse is eventually put down, acting as a catalyst for Mia to change her life and leave home, not for fear of dying — though that is present — but as a transition to her own higher state of consciousness. She no longer seeks the parental affection she once desired; she is literally untethered. Her place of birth is no longer her home and, in fact, never was.

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For Arnold, the lack of parental guidance and a feral community of children too content to grow up fast with no idea of the consequences is a terrifying prospect, especially if you’re female. Emotionally and physically separated from the domestic sphere, Arnold uses mob mentality as a means of pushing young women into adulthood, more specifically the adult universe of sexuality. In Fish Tank, the movie starts with Mia at odds with her friends, a group of pre-teen dancers who spend their days gyrating in the park, half-naked, for young boys’ delight. Mia, who dresses in tracksuits and enjoys breakdancing, isn’t seeking male attention. But once left to her own devices –separated from her “tribe” — she lacks the passably “tame” male attention her friends receive. Her attempt to find a new group to align herself with — one more in line with her presumed adult perspective — leads her to an unintentional audition at a strip club; the life her friends could very well lead her to, but one Mia unwittingly walks into.

Star is given more agency in her sexual becoming. It is Star’s sexual attraction to Jake that puts her on the path she’s on. Star’s first training session with Jake sees him charm a young girl, not unlike Star herself. As Jake pitches his wares to the girl’s mother, the teen dances provocatively outside, hoping to catch his attention. Arnold uses feminine dancing as a means of self-expression, but, in this instance, it’s used to prove that the girl’s absent-minded mother (present, caring and providing for her daughter) is just as neglectful as Star’s parents.

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Krystal advocates that the girls use their sexuality in order to sell magazines. Star is initially disgusted by the prospect, but in running off with a group of cowboys and later meeting a construction worker, these moments aren’t the terrifying cautionary tale they’d ordinarily be. Star is the one in control. These situations show off the men as pie-eyed and dreaming of their own youth and vitality, which Star represents. It is actually Jake who threatens Star’s safety, barging into the cowboys’ compound with a gun to collect her and having a meltdown when he discovers Star offered sex as an incentive to a customer. When in control of herself, Star is allowed freedom free of judgment — from society and the audience watching her recklessness. It is once she returns to the group that judgment and fear find her.

Star has seen America’s landscape and learned about humanity’s ability to hurt her in ways different from the family she left behind. American Honey’s finale sees the group dancing around a massive bonfire in the woods, reminding Star of what initially drew her to them. However, the feral world she’s surrounded by lacks the appeal it once held. Like Mia, Star connects with an animal — in this case, a turtle. Star, like the turtle, is initially slow to act. She walks into the nearby lake, letting the turtle go and submerging herself into the water. Star’s rebirth by water is the apotheosis of another famous encounter with water submersion, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Unlike Chopin’s heroine Edna Pontellier, Star baptizes herself and refuses to let the 071 “drown” her. When she surfaces from the water a woman is born.

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Andrea Arnold’s work encapsulates the liminal stage of feminine adolescence. Her heroines Mia and Star traverse an unwelcoming, cold landscape, only out to take advantage of their presumed naivety. Arnold’s world is one of ignorant parents lusting after youth, leaving their children reliant on creating a family of their own. For Star, this hive is a blessing and a curse that ultimately leads her to truth: family, no matter how they’re made up, require us to accept them of their flaws. No matter how much love exists, everyone must eventually leave their family unit to become their own person. For Arnold’s heroines, there’s no fear, only freedom.

Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film) is a freelance writer from Sacramento with a Masters in English. In her free time, she runs a classic film website and podcast where she’s had an opportunity to work with TCM. Kristen has been published at Flavorwire, Film School Rejects, The Playlist and Awards Circuit.

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