The other day, I was driving up New York’s West Side Highway to a friend’s birthday party, my wife in the passenger seat next to me. We weren’t paying much attention to the songs on the radio until a particular song came on: “Nookie” by Limp Bizkit. Our reaction was the same as yours likely is upon reading this. We laughed. What a bad band! What a bad song! Why is Limp Bizkit in Sirius Radio’s rotation? Do we pay for Sirius? Is this a good use of our hard-earned dollars?

Then a funny thing happened: I realized I knew just about every note and every (very bad) lyric of this silly song by heart. I can’t remember the last time I heard this song, but it had quite clearly left a mark on me.

Music critic Steven Hyden once said that kids and teenagers are the best, purest music fans. I think there’s truth to that, because while music is certainly about craft and virtuosity, it’s also, at its core, about emotion. And during our formative years, we think we’re experiencing the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Sometimes these swings happen in the a span of few hours. We’ve not yet been hardened by the world. We’re idealistic and irrational, and as the moments that make up our young years unfurl, there’s always a soundtrack playing along in the background.

Songs, maybe because of their relative shortness, are perhaps the artistic expressions that become most intertwined with our individual pasts. We all have favorite movies in which we can recite nearly every line, books with passages we know by heart. But we really know songs. More than any other form of art, songs seem to be able to gin up things hidden deep in our memories. We don’t hear a song from our childhood and just think about a time in our lives, but the emotions, relationships, locations, and aromas that made up those moments.  Our relationship with songs, even bad ones, is deep and intimate.

There’s a reason why artists from across the musical landscape reserve at least a few songs in their live setlists for their biggest and most popular hits. Even artists who have avoided the dreaded label of “legacy act” routinely play their earliest hits. If you see Bruce Springsteen, chances are you’re getting “Born To Run.” That’s partially because of these songs’ broad popularity, but also because of what they represent: the past.

When we get older and wiser and more cynical and more boring, we often find ourselves embarrassed at our early artistic tastes. “How could I have ever liked this?” is an easy way to think. I definitely felt that the other day listening to Fred Durst, um, sing. Now that I’m smart and cultured and know what real good music is, I know that Limp Bizkit is a bad band that “Nookie” is a bad song. But of course, art—and yes, Limp Bizkit is art—is subjective. And one thing I cannot deny is that, even though I heard that song as a grown adult and know that it’s bad, there’s still a part of me that likes it. I think that’s because I can’t disassociate the feeling I had being a young kid and listening to that (now terrible, I know!) Limp Bizkit music, jumping around in my room, imitating the red-Yankee-hat-clad weirdo from the music video. That song is part of my past. 12-year-old me loved it, and 12-year-old me was so much more innocent and carefree.

***

The kids in Andrea Arnold’s 2016 film American Honey do not have it easy. They are runaways. Star (Sasha Lane), is our window into this ragtag group of roving magazine salespeople. We first see Star in a dumpster, searching for food with two toddlers under her watch. As Star tries hitching a ride, she sees a white van whiz past and pull into a K-Mart parking lot, a group of rowdy kids getting out and heading into the store. She’s instantly drawn to them. Who are they? Star heads across the street and into the K-Mart, needing to find out.

Inside K-Mart, we see for the first time how music is not only part of the fabric of this group and its subculture, but is paramount to the film itself. Star looks around the store hoping to recognize someone she saw get out of the van, but they’ve seemingly vanished. Then, the song inside the store changes to Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” As the song’s opening notes play, the group emerges into view. It’s almost like they’re professional wrestlers, and their entrance theme has hit.

While he isn’t the first of the gang that Star sees, she quickly locks eyes with a radiant, charismatic, rat-tailed young man who we later learn is Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Using simple cuts almost in rhythm with the beat of the song, Arnold builds a suspenseful meet-cute between these two strangers. Jake jokingly asks, “Me?”; Star playfully sticks her tongue out at him, with a smile; Jake awkwardly returns the gesture (Shia LaBeouf deserved a trove of acting awards for this brief, hilarious action alone). When the song’s beat drops and the chorus plays, the group breaks out into full-on spontaneous dance in the middle of the store. Jake hops up onto a cash register, dancing, the whole time keeping his eyes locked on Star. The group quickly gets kicked out, but the connection between Star and Jake—and Star and this group—has been made. When Star flags Jake down in the parking lot and he offers her a job and a place on the van, we know she’s already made up her mind.

It’s not a shock to learn that this team of co-workers is built on a fraught foundation. On the surface it seems like a runaway kid’s heaven. The group all seemingly get along well, the drinking and smoking and hanging out of utmost importance even while technically working. But each of them can also be dropped at any instant—since they’re so far from home, being fired means being literally left on the side of the road. There’s a fierce sales competition with an archaic penalty.  Star fits in—like her, none of these people have anywhere else to be. If they get hurt, physically or emotionally, if they get thrown out of the van and watch it drive away forever, so what? They’ll make it work.

The lines of fate and freewill in American Honey meander alongside each other, converging, then diverting away again. Through its endless forward motion, Arnold gives us the sense that these characters cannot help but continue on this journey. But while their circumstances may indeed have brought them all to this point, the characters in the film—especially Star—are definitely making their own decisions, even if their options are much more limited than yours or mine.

In musicals, song titles and lyrics can get away with being a bit on the nose. Arnold uses the song “Choices (Yup)” by E-40 as the group’s pre-work morning pump up song. Less than a third into the film, for the first time, we see the group get ready to set out on the road for a day of selling. It’s early in the morning, in the parking lot of a run down motel, and the group slowly gathers around the van, dancing and rapping together to the song. Clipped off by itself, the scene could work as a music video. Arnold cuts between characters dancing and rapping along with the the song’s “Nope!…Yup!” call-and-response structure and its chorus (Lyric sample: Everybody got choices / I choose to get money, I’m stuck to this bread). Star bobs her head along with the music, smiling as she watches the group go through its ritual. Eventually, she catches on and emphatically joins in one one of the “Nope!” responses. Likely for the first time in her life, Star feels a part of something. It feels good.

Film critic Tim Grierson called American Honey “the culmination of everything Andrea Arnold has been building towards” as a filmmaker. It’s an accurate description in a few ways. Arnold tells stories about women, particularly young women and how our male-dominated culture objectifies them. But there’s no question that Arnold also has a keen interest in music and how young people use it to define themselves, and American Honey is her deepest exploration into this yet. Throughout Arnold’s films, we’ve seen these threads intersect, where men view women’s fondness for music and dancing and expressing themselves against them in a sexually demeaning way. In Fish Tank, the main character Mia wants to be a dancer. She spends time breaking into an abandoned apartment and practicing her break-dancing. She gets into fights with neighborhood kids over their dancing being, in her opinion, terrible. Late in the film, Mia heads to an audition, only to learn that it’s really a tryout for a job as an exotic dancer. In American Honey, there’s a similar moment where music, and young women expressing themselves to it, is instantly sexualized and commoditized. The girls of the group approach a large crew of male oil workers who are preparing for their workday. Star and the girls hop out of the van as Rihanna’s “We Found Love”—the movie’s second use of the song—blasts over the car speakers. They dance in front of the workers, who readily eat it up but are let down to find out that the girls aren’t prostitutes, but mere magazine salespeople. The abrupt party comes to an end, and everyone goes their separate ways.

Except Star—she’s goaded by a few workers into spending the day with them. Or maybe she sees it as an opportunity? From wide-eyed and smitten in a K-Mart to the back of a flat-bed in an oil field far away from home, Star’s journey has come to a tipping point. Perhaps by using the same song to bookend Star’s progression, Arnold may be telling us that there’s only one way that Star’s journey could have ended once she decided to get in that van, that this is the logical conclusion. Or maybe Star just merely chose this. The song’s refrain, “We found love in a hopeless place” on one hand suggests that love saves, but also present is the absence of possibility that things will get better. A song and what it means for us is dependent on the context in which it presents itself. Love songs can be breakup songs depending on where we are in our lives when we come across them. At the end of the film, Star’s final chapter is unwritten, so we don’t know how she’ll feel the next time she hears “We Found Love.”It might remind her of meeting Jake in K-Mart, it might invoke the day and sordid night in the fields

Perhaps Arnold’s most successful musical high-wire-act comes towards the film’s end. American Honey is far from the first film to utilize the “one person begins singing a song, someone joins, another person joins, everyone eventually joins in and big singalong happens” trope. One instantly thinks of Almost Famous and its use of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” In American Honey, not only do our band of misfit kids do their own slow-build singalong, they do it to a song that has the same title of the film itself, by the country group Lady Antebellum. It’s hard to overstate how risky of a choice this is by Arnold. On its surface, the idea of characters belting out the title of the film in a sing-a-long should break the campiness meter. I’d be posturing if I said I was certain how Arnold makes this work (I do think the fact that almost all of the music in the film is diegetic certainly works in its favor). For me, using the song “American Honey” towards the film’s end signals that we’ve in some ways been watching a musical all along. The movie doesn’t perfectly follow a typical narrative structure, and so the song acts as a sort of climax. Star, and the rest of the group, have been put through the ringer. Perhaps in some ways this is a life they’ve chosen, and its effects are worn on their tired faces. They cannot stay on the road, in this van, forever. At some point the journey will be over, and these characters may end up somewhere better. But they may not, and they all seem to know it. As an audience, following these people around for even just a short bit, we know that their fates are all undetermined. They’re doing their best to enjoy themselves moment by moment. For now, a familiar song comes on and offers them a moment of release and they take it, submitting themselves over to it completely. You can’t blame them.

American Honey is a versatile film. It’s a classic road movie and coming of age tale, a scathing critique on masculinity and female objectification, and a portrait of American poverty and its effects on individuals. But even as the film explores and undresses serious themes, music—happy, hopeful, messy songs, often sung buoyantly by these very human characters—flows through its bloodstream. American Honey features many other effectively-used songs not mentioned here, but one in particular stands out. Star meets a middle-aged trucker and hitches a ride with him, hoping to sell some subscriptions. These are two people who couldn’t be more different than one another. But then a song comes on, one they both know. It connects them, even if it represents something different for each of them. But they sing along, together, to its chorus:

“Come on, we gotta keep the light burning. Come on and dream baby, dream.”

Featured Image: A24