Kids These Days: "American Honey" an alive, free-flowing road trip

American Honey (2016)
162 min., rated R.

British filmmaker Andrea Arnold made a splash with 2009’s “Fish Tank” and brings a lot of vitality from across the pond in “American Honey,” a free-flowing, impressionistic road trip about the socioeconomically disadvantaged living on the edge of the American heartland. So lived-in and alive that it could be a documentary, the film carries one along on a wave of sadness, transcendence and hope. There was no actual script for her actors to follow, but writer-director Arnold reaches invigorating heights of filmmaking and raw visual poetry with music and feeling. For nearly three hours, this is an unflinching yet compassionate and revealing piece of work.

Acting newcomer Sasha Lane, who was picked out of a spring break crowd on Panama City Beach by Andrea Arnold, is a fresh-faced discovery as a dreadlock’d Oklahoma teen named Star. Before fleeing her rough life of dumpster diving for food and taking care of two young kids, she locks eyes with a confident guy named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who offers her a job selling magazines door to door in different neighborhoods. Star soon becomes the new girl in a shady crew, led by manager Krystal (Riley Keough), riding along in a white van of smoking, tatted, underprivileged young people like herself headed to Kansas City. While living in and out of motels and trying to make money during the day, the free spirit also hopes to connect with Jake. For once, Star finally feels wanted, but what will become of her?

“American Honey” doesn’t quite justify its sprawling 162-minute running time, but it certainly makes its own hypnotic path with its free-form narrative, aided by Robbie Ryan’s handheld, fly-on-the-wall cinematography (shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio). Although Andrea Arnold carefully avoids trashy condescension toward her characters, it is sometimes difficult to buy that any of them beyond Jake could be effective salespeople, but that's a minor point amidst the bigger picture. Fearlessness incarnate, Sasha Lane has an incendiary spark and a natural screen presence, while touchingly actualizing Star's arc to selflessness and self-realization. Shia LaBeouf fits right in as charismatic hustler Jake, as does Riley Keough as no-bull manager Krystal, and every other face (a lot of them unknown actors from off the street) looks like a real one that could be found loitering in a K-Mart parking lot or shopping mall. Arnold’s musical choices are even indelibly used, including Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Carnage’s “I Like Tuh,” Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Raury’s “God’s Whisper” and the title song by Lady Antebellum. A lot of time is spent in that van with Star and these kids, but one thing is for sure: you can’t take your eyes off of them.

Grade: B +