The reasons the MPAA ratings board has given “American Honey” an R sound like a panicky dad at a PTA meeting: “Strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens” ! Ironically, the film itself is as gentle and unexploitative as they come.
Yes, it deserves the rating, and yes, it depicts teenagers doing things the grown-ups would rather not admit they actually do, but it does so with a poetic curiosity and a sense of what it’s like to be young, poor, and rootless — both future-less and free.
The writer-director is Andrea Arnold, whose earlier movies (“Red Road,” “Fish Tank,” a punky period filming of “Wuthering Heights”) have reveled in problematic women young and old. She’s from England, and when a filmmaker from Over There comes Over Here and puts “America” in the title, that’s usually a sign that we should duck: grandiose socio-artistic statements ahead. (Not for nothing did this film win Arnold the Jury Prize at Cannes this year.)
“American Honey” offers those but, thankfully, much more over the course of its languorous 158-minute running time. With tenderness and concern, the movie hovers just behind the shoulder of its heroine, Star (Sasha Lane), as she jumps out of the nest and free-falls across the country.
It’s an awful nest, a hovel in Muskogee, Okla., that Star shares with her two young stepsiblings and a creepy stepfather. Mom appears to be off simultaneously snorting meth and line-dancing, and when the stepfather starts getting grabby, Star takes the first option out. Which is with a traveling van full of lost boys and girls selling magazine subscriptions in mall parking lots and suburban neighborhoods across the West. Their mama hen is Krystal (Riley Keough —Elvis’s granddaughter! — dead-eyed and wonderful), who has maybe three or four years in age on them and a lifetime of experience. The group’s star salesman is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who gives one lazy-lidded glance at Star and makes her heart go pitty-pat.
“American Honey” will frustrate most moviegoers: Arnold prizes observation over plot and she wants to dig under the skin of being rather than explain these kids to us. The crew is tatted-up, pierced, rude, and raffish but fundamentally trusting of each other — they protect each other because no one else will. Arielle Holmes, who played a street addict close to her own early experience in “Heaven Knows What” (2014), is the most touching of the bunch as Pagan, wise and bruised by life. But each of the boys and girls makes their mark and, when you least expect it, a small purchase on your emotions.
It’s Sasha Lane’s movie, though, and while she’s a newcomer (or because she’s a newcomer), her performance has the immediacy of first impressions. Jake takes Star through a rich neighborhood to teach her the magazine scam — they sell real subscriptions but make up whatever lies they can to get into the houses and close the deal, maybe swipe a watch or whatnot — and she throws off his spiel with brusque honesty. She’s a lousy saleswoman because she can’t front as anyone but herself.
As the title indicates, “American Honey” is equally attentive to the girl at its center and the country rolling by outside the van windows. A different moviemaker might make some of the men in that country, like a trio of wealthy cowpokes or a lonely oil rig worker (Bruce Gregory), into active threats to a teenage wanderer. Instead, Arnold humanizes them — the threat’s there but softened by empathy.
Like so many European artists before her, she’s fascinated with the bigness of the American West, its isolation and unexpected connections. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography bleeds with rich earth tones and the soundtrack basically excavates the inside of its young characters’ heads, from rap to pop to Springsteen to Mazzy Star to the title track by Lady Antebellum — a crazy quilt of melody and yearning that matches the faces in the van and that sums up America 2016 as well as anything else.
Is the movie overlong? My, yes, a soak that leaves your fingers good and wrinkled. Does it have its excesses? You bet: too many wildlife shots of butterflies, too much hand-held wooziness, too much Shia LaBeouf (and I like Shia LaBeouf, even if you don’t). But “too much” — the blissful, scary overload of experience unbound — is what “American Honey” wants to capture like a lightning bug in a bottle. At times it feels as if Arnold has remade Larry Clark’s “Kids” for a more hopeful century, or “Spring Breakers” with real people instead of carnivorous cartoons. She dares to look at the tribalism of our coming generations with something like faith.
Written and directed by Andrea Arnold. Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough, Arielle Holmes. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall, Coolidge, and suburbs. 110 minutes. R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens).