Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” is one of the few recent films that deserves to be called epic. Not just in its near three-hour running time, though that is a large part of it. Her intimate focus and beautiful images of poverty-stricken America turn what would normally be a road trip movie into a full-fledged coming of age movie, mixed with observations from an outsider.
Using an inexperienced actress in the lead (as she did with 2011’s “Fish Tank”), Sasha Lane is Star, an 18-year-old Texan girl living with her abusive step-father in Oklahoma. While at a Kmart one day she spies a van full of rowdy teenagers lead by Shia LaBeouf’s Jake, a wandering stranger who dances on a counter to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and steals her heart. He offers her a job following them as they cross the country selling magazine subscriptions and it doesn’t take her long to decide.
From there, it’s one meeting with Krystal (Riley Keough of “The Girlfriend Experience”), the group’s leader, and she’s thrust into the group’s hard-partying and hedonistic lifestyle as they move from hotel to hotel trying to get people to pay for magazines they most definitely do not need.
If that were the sum of “American Honey,” it would be an empty, grating display of young adult hedonism mixed with vulgarity. Arnold however has a lot more on her mind, and that’s clear from the opening scene as Star dumpster dives with two children passed onto her from an irresponsible mother. Arnold shoots the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio (as she did with her past films) that constrains it and pulls the viewer’s eye into the center of the frame.
She lets you bathe in the beauty of the countryside, something most people driving through never consider. And the group of kids — some of whom have motivations suggested for why they chose to leave – all give good performances for first-timers, despite the fact that they occasionally seem to blend together. Arnold has no interest in condemning or even glorifying their lifestyle. She just wants to show how these kids are finally letting go after having to do so much, how much they need this release just to stay in the world.
It’s those qualities that raise it up and make “American Honey” a trip worth taking.