Many years ago, in California, I overheard a cellphone conversation from a man with a plummy, Royal Family accent. He was letting all of us mere mortals in the general vicinity know that his work was forcing him to travel to “one of those square states where the square people live.”
In my overactive imagination, that anonymous Brit could be related to English director Andrea Arnold.
Her celebrated, Cannes Film Festival-honored American Honey, the alternately mesmerizing and maddening, nearly three-hour, teenage fever dream of a film about a road trip across the heartland, bears a similar zoo-animal curiosity and repulsion with flyover country and Wal-Mart America.
But, even at its most obvious and ham-fisted, American Honey remains compelling, largely for Arnold’s vividly verité, documentary-like cinematic style and a career-launching performance by Texan Sasha Lane who has never acted in a film before this.
She’s absolutely magnetic as a young Oklahoma woman looking to burst free from her humdrum life of dumpster diving and shepherding her younger step-siblings, all the while fighting off advances from her vile, grabby stepdad.
So it’s easy to see why she says yes to carefree Jake (Shia LaBeouf, with a gnarly, rat-tail haircut) on his invitation to join his ragtag group of street kids who caravan across the country, ostensibly selling magazine subscriptions door to door. But their commitment to literacy is outweighed by their love of freedom, hip-hop, and Rihanna’s We Found Love.
The latter — with its lyrics of finding love “in a hopeless place” and played here over a big-box store sound system while Jake dances on a checkout counter to Star’s growing admiration — represents everything that’s both right and wrong with American Honey.
On the one hand, “small-town Oklahoma” plus “big-box store” equals “hopeless place” is just too easy an equation. On the other hand, the scene itself is sweetly and wonderfully euphoric.
Lending what little tension there is to this freewheeling cross-country foray is Krystal (a suitably tough Riley Keough, The Girlfriend Experience), the chaperone of sorts for these poor and dispossessed souls even though she’s not much older than they are.
She barks out their marching orders, takes their proceeds, doles out their pay, arranges hotels and gives them tips on which suckers — er, potential subscribers — to approach. She’s also having a fling with Jake and doesn’t appreciate Star’s competition.
Then there are the kids themselves who, like Lane, mostly are not professional actors. They radiate a rugged authenticity matched with a sincere vulnerability in keeping with the characters they’re portraying.
There’s a scene near the end where they’re singing American Honey, the Lady Antebellum ballad from which the film takes its name, that is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
Arnold, whose previous films include the impressive 2009 Fish Tank about a girl who could be Star’s British counterpart, doesn’t really have much new to say about contemporary America or rootless young people living on the knife’s edge.
She strays into territory that has already been staked out by the likes of Gus Van Sant (Elephant), Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), Xavier Dolan (Mommy) and, of course, Larry Clark (Kids).
There are times that strain credibility. Would these young people who’ve been on the road all over the U.S. really be all that impressed by the Kansas City skyline?
Do the three, possibly squirrelly, middle-age guys driving a land yacht that Star hops into all have to be wearing white cowboy hats? Can they be any more symbolic?
And the film is far too long.
But Arnold comes up with some impressively exquisite images and Lane’s believable performance as a young woman coming into her own is a sturdy anchor for the film while the plot wanders to its conclusion.
American Honey isn’t the definitive square-state portrait by any means, but it’s an often rapturously beautiful snapshot.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Look Cinemas, Dallas; Angelika Plano; Alamo Drafthouse, Richardson
☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Sasha Lane. Riley Keough
Rated: R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, strong language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens)
Running time: 163 min.