"Do you have any dreams?"
"Nobody's ever asked me that before."
That sad exchange takes place a couple of times in Andrea Arnold's fourth feature, the exhilarating American Honey, and it's indicative of a certain generation of youths who are too busy trying to survive now to look ahead. More than that, it shows a fundamental disinterest by the people in their lives that such a thing has never been brought up before. We see the impact of that indifference reflected early on in the life of Star (Sasha Lane), a trailer-trash teen as she rifles through a garbage bin looking for enough food to feed her young siblings. Their mother is too busy line-dancing with her new boyfriend to care about their well-being; their father is a dirty, sexual assault case waiting to happen.
And yet through this gloom Star finds a moment of freedom, flying high on the backyard swing while the sun's glowing rays shine down upon her. American Honey is a series of such moments plucked out from the darkness of a hopeless future. The need for something more is what drives Star to accept a questionable job from Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the dapper pack leader of a traveling team of magazine sales people. Appropriately enough, she meets this misfit crew in a K-Mart parking lot, instantly becoming infatuated with their free-spirited lifestyle. We know they're spirited by the way they dance carelessly to Rihanna's "We Found Love" among the store's confused customers.
Jake sells her on what the job is all about, and it's less about selling subscriptions than being young and free in America. Leaving her dead-end life behind, Star joins them on their cross-country journey through flyover country, towns ruined by rampant drug use, economic hardship, and governmental disinterest. There's that word again. These kids all have stories, one probably worse than the other. Yet they conjure up new ones to make their sales quotas, and the best at it is Jake. He's a wolf, capable of preying upon exactly what his prospective customers need to hear. Star does't like it. She's terrible at it, the lying bit. She's mean to the customers, and often is to Jake. With him it's just a cover; their attraction to one another is undeniable, and Krystal (Riley Keough), the boss lady running this team, isn't happy about it. Krystal isn't someone you want to mess with; she makes the two lowest sellers fight just for the Hell of it.
But what else drives these teens to run away from home, to put themselves in danger on the open roads? To put themselves into the homes of complete strangers, or to haphazardly use sex to sell cheap magazine subscriptions to a bunch of men of dubious morality? In a way, American Honey mirrors the ambiguity seen in movies like Spring Breakers or Kids. While we learn little about them, we are thrust into an unflinching portrayal of their treacherous, carefree lifestyle. In the case of Star, she repeatedly finds herself in one untenable situation after another, whether it's alone in a house full of horny redneck cowboys, or off in an oilfield with an equally-randy driller ready for some action.
These are not good choices, and Star makes plenty of mistakes as she travels from Texas to Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas. But what makes American Honey so mesmerizing throughout its 160-minute runtime is the jagged evolution Star undergoes into someone capable of loving and being loved, to someone capable of offering hope and being hopeful. Arnold sets her on a thorny path that begins with wild, first romantic love with Jake, a relationship that is often fractured and violent. Another critical moment finds her selling to a family that too-closely resembles her own tortured upbringing, and the decision she makes there is not what she would have made before. Those must be some amazing magazines.
This is the fourth feature from Arnold and the third straight to highlight a firebrand performance by a newcomer. Fish Tank had Katie Jarvis, Wuthering Heights had James Howson, and American Honey has Sasha Lane, who may be the most impressive of them all. Let's hope she sticks around longer than they did. Another non-professional discovery plucked from out of nowhere, Lane is a natural in every way, capturing Star's innocence that peeks through her tough exterior. And the camera absolutely loves her, drinking in her every movement in a way that is undeniably sexual without feeling gratuitous. Star is a young woman discovering her sexual self and to back away from that would be a dishonest choice in a film that feels authentic as long as it stays within the coming-of-age framework. And part of that authenticity includes LaBeouf, who has hit a certain stride in his post-Transformers career playing scruffy love interests to wayward women.
Just as its hard to get a handle on what Star will do from moment to moment, Arnold's narrative fluctuates from episodic to refreshingly free-form. Although at nearly three-hours Arnold probably could have been more concise, the film's rambling nature is part of its charm. We have no idea where or when Star's story will end, but as she and her clique belt out Lady Antebellum's titular track, we know we want to be along for the ride.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5