American Honey puts you in the shoes of Star (Sasha Lane – she's terrific), an 18-year-old woman that has joined a group of travelers. They are also young, and poor. Many of them are from nightmare families—now they travel in a group from town to town selling magazine subscriptions (no one cares about the magazines, by the way. They are selling bullshit inspirational and/or hard luck stories along with varying degrees of flirting). The kids have a manager named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) who is older but still young enough to seem like one of the crew, when that works to his advantage. He has a boss named Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter) — she's a little older still — who manipulates him as effective as he manipulates the kids.
Their lives would horrify many. Misfit children banded together by opportunists, hustling subscriptions and stealing, staying in cheap motels and partying their nights away. To the kids the group is their current family, offering food, a place to sleep, comfort, company, adventure, and fun. They don't romanticize it, and the filmmaker tries to show both the bright and dark sides of their lives. But it gets to you – the whole communal traveling thing is … yes, dangerous, but also appealing.
This kind of life gets tedious, too, a fact most films ignore. American Honey doesn't. It includes enough of the routine to shake off any fairy dust that may be altering your outlook.
Before we go on I should mention that American Honey is two hours and 40 minutes long. I could easily have sat for another hour, but I understand that many people will find the movie terribly boring. Some will complain that not enough happens, but I loved the way the episodic encounters with outsiders were handled. Writer-director Andrea Arnold will introduce a setup that seems destined to go a certain direction, only to take it into a different, more interesting, and more credible place. For example, Star gets mad at Jake for being dishonest (she fancies herself a truth-teller) and impulsively takes off with three aging cowboys (Will Patton, Daran Shinn and Sam Williamson). At their poolside barbeque Star starts drinking tequila while expressing amazement at the worm near the bottom of the bottle. A bet is made and … the story goes to a reasonable place for the set of characters we've met.
That happens a lot in the movie and I appreciated Arnold's attempts to stay honest. Unfortunately she tends to get self-congratulatory at times, including a moment involving a wee girl wearing a Dead Kennedy's tee-shirt that is just too poignant to not feel contrived.
Bottom Line: A star is born in Sasha Lane, and you're invited to go with her into writer-director Arnold's mesmerizing (and mostly credible) tale of Dickensian life in Wal-Mart America.