On the shelf of essential cultural products whose names begin with the word “American,” Andrea Arnold’s new film (her fourth feature and the first set in the United States) might find a spot between Grant Wood’s “Gothic” and Green Day’s “Idiot.” This is not solely a matter of alphabetical order. “American Honey,” which takes its title from a song by Lady Antebellum, is a roaming, rambling road picture propelled by sex, hip-hop and close-ups of insects. It probes the murk and terror beneath the surface of contemporary life, and illuminates the vital role of ignorance, poor judgment and wishful thinking in our national character.
Following the adventures of a young woman named Star, “American Honey” tells a tale of youthful recklessness that could easily have swerved into moralism or exploitation. Star (Sasha Lane), first seen Dumpster diving with her two younger siblings, inhabits a sad prairie landscape of big-box stores and strip malls. Sexually abused by the lecherous drunk she calls Daddy and all but abandoned by her mother, she runs away with a band of feral teenagers who travel the country in a white van, selling magazine subscriptions door to door and sleeping in cheap motels.
The members of this crew are at once con artists and suckers, fabricating stories for potential customers about scholarship funds and college assignments and contributing their labor to a dubious cause. Every night they hand over their earnings to their supervisor, Krystal (Riley Keough), who is barely older than her charges. She doles out threats and discipline and travels separately in a convertible driven by Jake (Shia LaBeouf), her top earner and possible boy toy. Her job is to deliver pep talks and mete out discipline, but Krystal is not really the boss. An unseen corporate entity is running the show, not that Star and her new friends care much about such things. They are too busy flirting, arguing, smoking and singing along with Rihanna and Ludacris during long van rides. Then they disembark to go into neighborhoods pretending to be starry-eyed young strivers. Their lives are like an endless class trip to nowhere.
For her part, Arnold is in no hurry to reach any particular narrative destination. Her earlier features — “Red Road,” “Fish Tank” and “Wuthering Heights” — were more tidily plotted, but they share with “American Honey” a willingness to be diverted by sensual detail and an empathetic curiosity about the inner lives of their female protagonists. She likes to shoot in narrow, boxy frames, as if to visually underscore the limitations that the world places on girls and women. At the same time, her camera ranges freely and widely within that world, zeroing in on tiny instances of strangeness and beauty and looking upward and outward at the sky and everything under it.
“American Honey,” long and messy as it is, is by turns observant and exuberant, and sweet in a way that is both unexpected and organic.
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, McCaul Lombardi, Arielle Holmes.
Writer-director: Andrea Arnold.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 163 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, graphic sex, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura, South Beach, Sunset Place; in Broward: Paradise.