Written and directed by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (the Oscar-nominated "Fish Tank," and "Wuthering Heights"), the beguiling "American Honey" is a rambling, intoxicating road movie about youth, freedom, poverty, and the American Dream. The film (Arnold's first filmed in the US), which took the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, revolves around Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), a teenager living in Oklahoma.
We first meet Star as she's dumpster-diving for food to feed herself and her younger brother and sister. Shortly after, she observes a van loaded up with a rowdy band of young people who look like they're having the time of their lives. Dancing, laughing, and generally having a grand old time, their lives seem as far from her reality as it can get. She catches the eye of one of them, Jake (a terrific Shia LaBeouf), and he eventually approaches her.
In short order, the flirtatious Jake entices Star to join the world of "mag crews," ragtag groups of young runaways and outcasts living on the margins of society who travel across the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. The crew's top salesman, Jake is also charged with recruiting new members -- he's like Tom Sawyer with a rat tail and eyebrow piercing. Eager for a way out of her situation, it doesn't take much convincing for Star to hop aboard. Arnold sketchily fills in the details of Star's home life in these early scenes: a lecherous father figure, absent mother, squalid house, so we see exactly what she desires to escape from.
Jake's crew is headed up Krystal (Riley Keough, "Mad Max: Fury Road"), a sort of Fagin-like figure who's in charge of motivation and discipline, collecting the earnings at the end of each day and making sure every member is making enough money to pull their weight. At Krystal's request, Jake takes Star under his wing and shows her the tricks of the trade. Fanning out through upscale neighborhoods, they knock on doors, doing their best to appeal to the resident's sense of guilt and privilege that they'll buy whatever they're selling. The crew spends their days selling, their nights partying, and then move onto the next town. While Star's journey toward self-actualization remains central to the film, the loose plot unfolds as both a road trip and surprisingly poignant love story as Star and Jake pursue a romance, despite Krystal's strict rules against relationships between crew members.
"American Honey" was inspired by a 2007 New York Times article about the mag crew subculture, as well as by Arnold's own trip through the heartland, and there's a lovely naturalism to the story. It's a snapshot of the country as a whole -- its beauty, its inequality, and its diversity. It dramatizes the lives of those in the underclass of society without ever descending into poverty porn. Save for one heavy-handed sequence -- in which Star runs into a young girl in desperate circumstances who eagerly demonstrates her musical ability by reciting lyrics from "I Kill Children" by Dead Kennedys -- for the most part the film is told with a clear-eyed sense of compassion.
Arnold gets some wonderful performances from her young ensemble, who aside from a few recognizable faces (including Arielle Holmes of last year's druggie drama, "Heaven Can Wait"), are mostly non-actors. They feel authentic and completely convincing in the way they quickly form a surrogate family for one another.
Sasha Lane was a Texas college student who Arnold discovered lying on a Miami beach during Spring Break. She'd never acted before, but she's a natural, giving what's bound to be the breakout performance of the year. She has a fragileness as well as an inherent toughness that suits her character perfectly. She's matched by LaBeouf, who gives one of the best and most charismatic performances I've seen from him.
The film looks gorgeous, with deeply-saturated, hand-held photography from lenser Robbie Ryan. But the Academy aspect ratio Ryan shoots in ensures that, despite the beautiful vistas and vast landscapes of the American South, there's still a sense that the world remains somewhat closed off to these characters.
The length is bound to scare some people off -- clocking in at an intimidating 163 minutes, the film is rather unwieldy, but I never noticed the time. It's meandering in the way road trips often tend to be, as time seems to ebb and flow, somehow both dragging and passing by too quickly. Its effect is completely entrancing. Sometimes we start to feel as stir-crazy as the characters after all that time spent crammed into a van, but as it rolls along in a fog of weed and booze, set to a blaring soundtrack of trap, hip-hop, and pop music, it captures their sense of freedom, with nothing but the open road ahead.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including interviews with "American Honey" star Sasha Lane, and Sky Elobar of "The Greasy Strangler."