"We found love in a hopeless place," sings Rihanna, the sound of exuberance in her voice. With her declaration of romance gracing the soundtrack several times, American Honey has its unofficial anthem. The song in question couldn't be more fitting in the latest exploration of individuality and independence from Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights director Andrea Arnold. The film treks through desperate, desolate towns, but doesn't dwell in any one spot, or indulge in hopelessness for long. Instead, it combines the heady excitement that accompanies the first flourishes of something new, with the less-than-glamorous reality that inevitably seeps to the surface.
Indeed, love isn't the only thing the film's road-tripping teen protagonists find, as they go door to door selling magazines across middle America. Cramped in close confines in cars and cheap hotel rooms, they witness wealth and poverty, meet kind and predatory strangers, and confront memories and emotions they don't have the words to express, but can convey only through their eclectic taste in music. That, plus a crew member who whips out his manhood whenever he can, and Shia LaBeouf sporting one hell of a rat tail.
It's LaBeouf's Jake, a middle manager, who inspires 18-year-old Oklahoma resident Star (Sasha Lane) to flee from her sleazy dad and into a vehicle with the ragtag gang. She seeks nothing more than a pay cheque and a different scene, even if the former isn't easily earned, and the latter isn't quite the escape she thought it would be. The quick-thinking, smooth-talking salesman tricks that have served the charismatic Jake so well don't come naturally to Star, though amorous feelings for her new pal quickly do. Staying on the good side of the group's scantily clad, profit-obsessed leader, Krystal (Riley Keough), is a taxing job in itself.
Landscapes fly by, spied out the van's windows, yet the more things change, the more they seem the same. Star can't help but have the celestial bodies she's named for in her eyes as fresh experiences, people, places and parts of life open up to her. A first-timer spotted on spring break by writer-director Arnold, Lane is as unguarded and realistic as you could want in such a film, and gives the impression of living rather than acting. Likewise, LaBeouf appears to coast rather than perform, in what may be the perfect vehicle for his careening off-screen ways. In support, Keough electrifies with little more than a steely glare and a no-nonsense demeanour.
The entire cast, both leading and background, feel totally authentic — and while that's a term that gets bandied about a lot by film critics, the truth is American Honey oozes it from every frame. It's a product of Arnold truly going the extra mile, taking the cast on the road just as seen in the movie, and adopting stylistic choices designed to immerse viewers in the story. Boxing the film into a 4:3 aspect ratio demands the audience's focused attention, as does the dream-like sheen that tints her minutiae-filled images. Accordingly, there's potent, probing poetry in every shot, just as there is in every element of Star's ebbing, flowing life.