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'American Honey' is a thrillingly imperfect road trip movie

Andrea Arnold's American debut features both thrilling newcomer Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf with an eyebrow ring.

‘American Honey’
Director:
Andrea Arnold
Stars: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” has moments of sublime transcendence. It also has moments where sledgehammer meets cranium. It’s a big movie — some 162 minutes — and big enough for us to suggest something weird: Perhaps a movie this size can contain good and bad, profound and obvious, a thrilling newcomer and Shia LaBeouf with a hideous eyebrow ring and braided rat tail. It’s imperfect, just like its teenage hero. Both character and movie make dumb mistakes. They’re both unformed. And they both build themselves into a kind of shape before our eyes. That’s what’s thrilling about it.

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What’s never in doubt is the talents of its star. Sasha Lane — whom the English filmmaker Arnold (“Fish Tank,” “Wuthering Heights”) discovered on a Florida beach during Spring Break — is a natural onscreen, at once fiery and vulnerable. We’re never sure which extreme will take over. But we’re not surprised when Star, her character’s on-the-nose name, ditches her miserable, go-nowhere, Middle America digs to join up with a roving gang of runaway youngs. Dirty yet happy, prone to sing the n-words in rap songs even if they’re white, they tour the country in a dilapidated bus, selling magazine subscriptions. Yes, they know no one reads magazines anymore. They also know to guilt-trip and lie to get signatures and cash. Then they pile into motel rooms and start again. At least they’re free.

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Of course, they’re not. They’re also being scammed. That they’re basically indentured servants — and that this rinky-dink operation is a metaphor for the illusion of freedom that most Americans think is real — is one of the few ideas “American Honey” doesn’t cram down the throat, lest you didn’t get it. When Arnold’s film is obvious, she usually goes with small and, frankly, dumb symbolism. The gang’s fascistic boss, played by Riley Keough, at one points wears a Confederate flag bikini. Late in, Star has an intense stare-down with a bear. What do these mean? Something. Maybe nothing.

But these vacuous stabs at profundity have the perverse effect of making “American Honey” rougher, more interesting. For one thing, they make its actual majestic moments even more magical. Among these is Star’s meet-cute with the gang: It happens at Wal-Mart, natch, and it involves a group led by their second-in-command, LaBeouf’s Jake, jumping onto check-out conveyor belts, grooving to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” beckoning a gobsmacked Star to join in. (With this and the scene in “Girlhood” where four low-income girls dance in a fancy hotel to “Diamonds,” Rihanna has become one of cinema’s great pop god go-tos.)

Other set pieces draw out encounters we assume will go terribly but keep snaking in unexpected directions. At the mid-point, Star whimsically catches a ride with some overly-gregarious-seeming middle-aged cowboys (including Will Patton). They’re going back to one of their houses, they say, to cook some steaks and drink some mescal. Will she come? Of course, she will, and as the scene goes on and on and on (and on and on and on (and on)), as she drinks tequila worms for money and pushes one of them into a pool, we keep waiting for things to turn predictably art house bleak-o-rama. Then we realize our prejudices, both against middle-aged cowboys who randomly pick up young women and against movies like “American Honey.”

“American Honey” isn’t always, or even often, this electric. It doesn’t need to be. Watching it simulates the experience of not just being in the moment, but being on an aimless journey. It trains us to take the highs with the lows, to get excited when it’s on and chill out when it’s not. Our mind might wander: Does the presence of someone as famous as Shia LaBeouf (and that eyebrow ring, and that braided tail) ruin the naturalism? Or does it prove this isn’t actually about realism but actually quite stylized and controlled? And does “American Honey” in fact make the most perfect use yet of Shia LaBeouf? He always, in every movie, feels like he’s putting on airs, acting older and more dashing than he is. But he’s just a kid showing off. That’s perfect for Jake, a guy who pretends he has more power than he does, and whose motives for seducing Star remain unresolved.

A lot remains unresolved in “American Honey,” and its best scenes — the cowboys, a later, more grim “date” with a polite(ish) construction worker, even that stupid bear stare-off — are haunting in their lack of resolution, like echoes that never cease. However obvious it can sometimes be, it’s not obvious how to process “American Honey.” It lingers like an experience you actually lived.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
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