“We explore America," says the roustabout spider to a firefly spirit in American Honey, echoing so many easy riders before. Finding what different movie generations do, that isn't always pretty.
American Honey feels like a post-millennial's graven image on screen. Not that everyone under 25 wants to be itinerant, crammed into a ratty van with a dozen other aimless, pansexual runaways, peddling obsolete things to strangers. It's these merry pranksters' tribal optimism in times without promise, bonded by culture — in this case, hip-hop — from slang to sing alongs.
You didn't need to ride a motorcycle in the '70s to grasp the disillusioned patriotism behind Easy Rider. You don't need to join a magazine crew selling subscriptions door-to-door to soak in the grungy energy of Andrea Arnold's film. She finds the goodness of youth among some of its least regarded members; new world hippies, parading freedom that Jack Nicholson warned us in Easy Rider scares America.
The roustabout is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), leading a team of young people with nowhere else to go. Jake isn't the boss; that's Krystal (Riley Keough), a sloe-eyed vixen in a Confederate bikini who drives ahead to book fleabag motels and "company" for the night. Jake takes the van, pushes the crew and recruits new, exploitable talent.
The firefly is Star (radiant newcomer Sasha Lane), introduced while dumpster-diving for food with two young siblings. Arnold deftly spins a dismal existence — absent mother, groping stepfather — making irresistible Jake's flirty invitation to join the crew and "explore America." Her perspective is entirely the movie's, and Lane's prismatic portrayal carries Arnold's awkwardly epic 2 3/4-hour running time.
This is a road trip movie, with the episodic structure that entails. Linking the truck stops, sales pitches, convenience stores and early morning parking lots is Star's infatuation with Jake, who's interested but is on Krystal's leash. She has a strict no-dating rule among everyone but her. Keough plays white trash sexuality to a T-back, a sharp contrast to Star's multicultural sensuality, immediately sensed as a threat.
Playing with one woman's money and the other's emotions, Jake is a vessel for LaBeouf's better acting instincts, which is to say, his less appealing traits. It's his best role in years, giving him a braided ponytail and motives as twisted. His scenes with Lane hum with sexuality at first sight, flash mobbing at Walmart to Rihanna's We Found Love ("in a hopeless place"). Their consummation is erotic without glamor, an apt description for much of Arnold's movie.
Orbiting these star-crossed lovers are the misfit crew, whose hedonistic spirit carries the first hour. We don't learn much about their back stories, even at the movie's length. But they're an interesting, at times amusing bunch of exhibitionists, loners, dreamers, masochists and Star Wars freaks. Arnold mostly cast her film off the streets, or in Lane's case, a Panama City beach at spring break.
This teen spirit smells authentic, none more fragrantly than Star, with her piled locs and guileless approach to what is essentially a scam operation. Innocence will fade with curiosity; Arnold sets up scenarios that could be hazardous to Star's safety, as she tests new freedom, not considering the worst. Her free spirit is obvious without every animal metaphor Arnold tosses in (rescued insects, a chummy bear, penned-up cows).
Yet the firefly metaphor sticks, for Star and the shooting star playing her. American Honey ends without certain futures for either but higher hopes for both. Sure, Arnold's movie is aimless, at times frustrating, like its characters. It's also a harshly poetic reflection on what being young must mean today.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.