For the young people in this indie flick, who roam the heartland and live on the margins, music is the closest thing to a religious experience. Their official job is selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door; their unofficial one is making a dead-end way of life into a party.
When 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) first encounters the traveling crew that she will soon join, they're dancing joyously to Rihanna's "We Found Love" in a Kmart. Writer-director Andrea Arnold's fourth feature is full of scenes like that, in which cuing up the right song — pop, rock, hip-hop or R&B — transforms a "hopeless place" into one where someone might, indeed, find love.
American Honey, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is a 163-minute film with a meandering plot and not much resolution. Yet it's such an absorbing experience — visually, aurally, atmospherically — that viewers who come along for the road trip may find themselves not minding the lack of destination.
Arnold (Fish Tank), who hails from the UK, is clearly trying to capture a certain slice of Americana on screen: strip malls, truck stops, trailer parks. That part of the country is often described as having been "left behind," and it's hard to imagine a better metaphor for being stuck in the past than selling magazines on people's doorsteps. ("Does anyone still buy those?" Star asks. "Fuck no," she's told.) If Arnold had ponderously underlined recurring motifs such as the meth epidemic and the decline of the middle class, the movie might have been a trial to sit through. But she eschews talking points and lets the energy of her young cast — mostly unknowns — keep the story buoyant from scene to scene.
Sometimes American Honey even plays like a grittier version of Almost Famous. Star is the naïve newcomer to the subculture of magazine crews; Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is the old hand who takes her under his wing. Their mutual attraction is obvious, but the imperious Krystal (Riley Keough), who rules the crew with a heavily made-up eagle eye, has claimed Jake for her own.
This triangle is the least interesting aspect of the movie, but Lane — a nonprofessional discovered on a beach — makes Star such a force of nature that it's hard not to root for her. We learn just enough of her backstory to know she has ample reason to leave home, and to regret that choice. She's reckless and impulsive, yet full of fiercely held principles that emerge organically in her actions: arguing with Jake's sales philosophy, saving a bee from a swimming pool.
Arnold keeps us deep in Star's perspective. She uses insert shots of foliage and insects not to pretty up the movie but to evoke the kind of indelible moments — fleeting combinations of place, time and mood — that stick with us for a lifetime. Lady Antebellum's "American Honey" (which inspired the film) is a song about nostalgia, and when it finally plays on the soundtrack, we know an older Star will look back on these moments as defining points in her life.
But will she look back fondly, or with pain? Given the film's lack of a traditional coming-of-age arc, viewers may wonder if Star's youthful hopes matter. Or will adulthood bleed the exuberance out of her, leaving her like the many tired working people she encounters on her travels?
Arnold's triumph lies in creating a film in which drab, even sordid, settings can give birth to transcendent moments like that Kmart dance, or Star's exchange of dreams with a weathered trucker as they listen to Bruce Springsteen's "Dream Baby Dream." This is no Hollywood musical: When the music stops, everything settles back into drabness or sordidness again. But Star sticks in our heads because she believes in possibility — a brighter, more exciting world lurking just beneath this one, waiting for us to cue up the right song.