The paradox of “American Honey,” an epic tone poem about a youthful band of itinerant hucksters, is that it somehow manages to be both rapturous and dispiriting.
Loosely inspired by a 2007 New York Times article by Ian Urbina is a look at the subculture of roving “mag crews” — groups of teenagers and young adults, many of them runaways and dropouts, who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door and in the streets. The scripted drama by British writer-director Andrea Arnold (”Wuthering Heights”) isn’t quite cinema vrit, although most of the young cast is composed of nonactors, and the style of filmmaking is certainly fly-on-the-wall — with a vengeance.
Arnold has an admitted fascination with insects, and “Honey” features so many close-ups of bees, moths, fireflies and other creepy-crawlies that entomology becomes almost a subtheme of the film. “You’re fascinated with that worm, ain’t you”?” says an urban cowboy (Will Patton) to the film’s protagonist, Star (mesmerizing newcomer Sasha Lane), after picking up the 18-year-old. Star has become absorbed by the caterpillar at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal, after agreeing to party with a car full of lecherous middle-aged men.
Don’t worry. It doesn’t end as badly as it sounds.
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But if the movie isn’t exactly gritty realism on the one hand — the visuals are too dreamy, for one thing, as if seen through a kind of mezcal-induced swoon — neither is it a romanticized vision of life on the American road. Urbina’s article chronicled psychological and physical abuse among these crews, and Arnold’s film doesn’t sugarcoat that reality, nor shy away from it. As depicted in the film, casual sex and drug and alcohol use are common among the mag crew, and male members of the sales force who fail to meet quotas are sometimes forced to fight each other in front of the others, for sport.
Yet Arnold also brings to bear a euphoric appreciation for the spirit of freedom and the optimism — if not the innocence — of her subjects, who can seem at once world-weary and hopelessly naive. Call it a form of ecstatic naturalism, one that revels in the ugly paradoxes of life.
The eyes through which we are introduced to the world of “American Honey” belong to Star, a somewhat lost and searching Midwesterner who, at the start of the film, chucks what few commitments she has to take up with a mag crew led by the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf). Jake quickly takes her under his wing, teaching Star the tricks of the sales trade, which, according to the movie, mainly involve lying. The film’s mag crewmembers say they’re raising money for education, or a sick family member — whatever works.
Star, for her part, has a moral compass that causes her to balk at these deceptions, but not at becoming romantically involved with Jake, who appears to be something like a sex slave for the crew’s queen-bee overseer, played with sleepy-eyed intensity by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough. Their fraught triangle, which also involves power struggles over business practices, informs much of the film’s action, such as it is.
There’s a restless nihilism at the center of “American Honey” that fuels the film’s young antiheroes in their peripatetic rush from one nowhere to another.
At the same time, Arnold — an outsider seemingly embodied by the openhearted, wide-eyed curiosity of Star — finds room in this broken vision of America not just to dream but to hope. Like the inspiration for its title, there’s a wild sweetness to the people — and maybe even to the land — depicted with such breathtaking honesty and raw beauty in “American Honey.”
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough.
Director: Andrea Arnold.
Running time: 2:42.
Rated: R, for graphic nudity and strong sexual material, coarse language and drug and alcohol use, all involving teenagers.