Alfred Hitchcock popularized the phrase – “McGuffin” in the 1930s. A “McGuffin” is when there is a scene inserted into a film that has nothing to do with adding value to the plot or narration of the story. You know when you’re perfume shopping and they have that bowl of coffee beans for you to sniff so that it erases all the perfumery smells in your nose. A “McGuffin” is like that, sort of.
So why all this “McGuffin” talk? Well, American Honey, winner of the Cannes Jury Prize in 2016, is one big McGuffin. Not just one scene of McGuffining, but the entire movie. Sure it has its basic plot but it is filled with scene upon scene of conversations that don’t add to the narration of the film. So, it stands to reason that this movie would be kinda boring or nonsensical, right? Wrong! Somehow it works and I am going to explain why.
American Honey is about Star (Sasha Lane), a homeless girl trying to survive. She meets charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf, Transformers: Dark of the Moon), who is a member of a group of magazine sellers traveling around the country. They get to keep 20 – 25% of the sale and the rest of the money goes to the leader, Krystal (Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road). And that’s where I’ll stop telling you what happens.
It’s more important to express what I learned from watching the lives of Star, Jake and the rest of these wayward young adults unfold – there are moments in life that aren’t deeply significant, yet they mean everything. It’s these moments that build upon each other day after day that effects our choices and define our memories. American Honey has a basic plotline sure, and there are some very dramatic moments. But it is mostly made up of conversations or events that don’t initially seem to contribute to the story. But through these random collections of occurrences and conversations, we see the true meaning of director Andrea Arnold’s intent – we are who we are in the moment. There isn’t a beginning or end to someone’s story. There are moments in time, and these moments can occasionally be life changing, but usually aren’t.
If you’ve seen Arnold’s movie Fish Tank, you’ll know that this is a storytelling style that she’s been developing for some time. Just a note of warning though that although Fish Tank is incredible for being so, so raw, it’s an emotional punch in the gut.
In American Honey, Arnold brings all of the same raw qualities to the screen. In one scene, Star and Jake are about to have sex and Star stops mid-passion to remove her tampon. I probably just lost a lot of readers right there, but this moment is incredible because it’s just so real. It isn’t relevant to the story or their relationship, but it’s relevant to life. We rarely see these moments in film because they are so unromantic. It’s even unromantic to write about it so it’s clearly done its job affecting me, the audience.
Also, whenever Star and Jake have sex, the music always stops. I loved that because in our head there is music and rose petals on the floor and everything is in sync and perfect. In reality, that isn’t the case. Things are awkward and fumbly.
American Honey was filmed using a hand-held camera which adds to the raw. A majority of the film’s dialogue is improvised and that contributes to its authenticity as well. Sasha Lane was plucked off a beach to play this role. She is not a polished actress but she is so very good nonetheless. Shia LaBeouf, as a person, annoys the living crap out of me, but as an actor, he is incredibly good at his craft. The chemistry between Jake and Star cannot be faked.
In all honesty, I can’t usually watch films that are as unpolished as American Honey. I usually need some surrealism in my movies. But every once in awhile, it’s important to see films like this one.
So what’s the point of watching a movie without a real plot? Well, because it’s a film about everyday life and sometimes life is just a series of non-dramatic events. American Honey wasn’t easy to watch at times and it certainly wasn’t easy to love. But when I paid attention to the details and adjusted my focus, I saw something I never expected to see. I saw myself reflected on screen in the small intimate moments and that’s so incredibly special.