Youth is not exactly wasted on the young, even when the young are as wasted as they frequently are in Andrea Arnold‘s nectar-hued, poignant, yet propulsive “American Honey.” It’s more that youth is impossible to experience when you’re young — it is an unexamined state that has no frame of reference to anything else. So in real life, you can’t ever really “feel young,” but you can at the movies. Especially if that movie is “American Honey,” into which it feels like Arnold distills the very essence of youth, and along with a never-better Robbie Ryan as her cinematographer, serves up golden image after golden image as though dispensing amber shots of hard liquor. It will make you drunk, it will make you giddy, it will make you high, and at 2 hours 43 minutes, it will eventually make you tired, but even with the hangover, “American Honey” is a glorious mezcal bender. Eat the worm.
Popping onto the screen in a fabulous 4:3 aspect ratio which already kicks against the impulse to track the open spaces of middle America in widescreen vistas and godlike panoramas, from the first scene you are plunged headfirst into Arnold’s immediate style, and allied entirely to the point of view of her star, the aptly named Star, played by the film’s revelation, Sasha Lane. In messy dreadlocks and a cheap tank top with a couple of kids almost certainly not her own in tow, 18-year-old Star is digging through a dumpster and scores a chicken still in its packaging. Then, after a few abortive attempts to get the three of them home by hitchhiking, a white minivan stuffed with people, and a pair of mooning buttocks in the back window, drives by. Star locks eyes momentarily with the guy in the passenger seat, and when it pulls into a nearby supermarket shopping lot, she goes over to engineer a prickly introduction in which the attraction is clearly reciprocated.
The guy is Jake (Shia LaBeouf, reminding us all, for the most part, that he’s a good actor despite sporting the most appalling hairdo) and he suggests Star join the boisterous group who, it turns out, sells magazine subscriptions door-to-door in what’s basically a borderline pyramid-scheme scam. They work under the watchful eye of their manager Krystal (Riley Keough, whose performance here coming so soon after her astonishing turn Starz’ “The Girlfriend Experience” is similarly shark-eyed, monetary and almost animalistically alpha-female) whose relationship with Jake gives the film its very loose love-triangle stakes. The outfit essentially operates like a little tribe, or a cult, with its own rituals and traditions, bonded together fairly ferociously but less by affection than by the shared acknowledgment that none of them have anyone else.
Indeed, outside of our three main stars, the rest of the troupe, aside from Pagan, played by Arielle Holmes (“Heaven Knows What“), about whom we get a little personal detail, aren’t particularly differentiated aside from their hairstyles and body types. Largely played by first-timers, they are there more for the choral vibe of authentic youthfulness they collectively give off rather than for individual characterization.
Arnold’s eye for the miraculously skewering detail is as sharp as ever and the Robert Frank-style Americana of this road trip allows dozens of lovely touches: shots of wasps rescued from drowning in swimming pools, peeing dogs in Superman capes, and curling faded photographs tacked onto squalid walls. And in other ways she seems to have developed, too, perfecting the kinetic, dynamic cutting that she displayed in her terrific “Fish Tank,” that can be adapted for the purposes of tension, as Star gets herself into situations that could easily turn ugly, or of celebration, as in the film’s many exuberant dancing, party and music scenes.
And the music is something else again — a great soundtrack composed largely of songs many of us wouldn’t be caught dead listening to under normal circumstances, Arnold finds frequent use for everything from Southern rap to Bruce Springsteen to Rihanna (in fact, this is the second recent outstanding anthemic film about young womanhood, after Céline Sciamma‘s “Girlhood,” to capture the alchemical effect of Ri-ri’s music on disenfranchised millennial females). And if occasionally the soundtrack lands a little on the nose (Jake and Star literally find love in a chain supermarket — a hopeless place if ever there was one), the clever way the sound is designed compensates, with massive party tracks cutting out abruptly on an edit to give a sense of next-day hangover, and most unexpectedly, at the film’s lovely close when Star has a private moment of baptism during a lakeside party, and after all the noise and clamor she is reborn in quiet.
It is indulgent in its length and relative plotlessness, though there’s no point at which the bravado of Arnold’s filmmaking, Lane’s riveting performance or Ryan’s stunning Polaroid-shaped lensing ever flag. And there is a slight issue with LaBeouf, so good in the early stages, especially when being used as a pawn in the tacit territorial battle between Krystal and Star, in that it’s jarring when he gets to be all Shia LaBeouf-y and beat up a living room, then roar away on a motorcycle.
But for the most part, Arnold has a tight grip on what she wants her loose-limbed film to be: a thrumming blood-rush firsthand experience of youth, of aimlessness and love, with the top down and the radio blaring and the certainty that you are so indestructible and so eternal that you don’t even need to hold onto this moment because everything is always going to be just like this. And that’s the loveliness of the transient but heady “American Honey”: It captures the experience of being young in a way that you don’t get to experience when you are young. Ephemerality is both the beauty and the tragedy of youth — it’s what gives it meaning but it’s also what snatches meaning away. With Arnold’s film, we don’t get to hang on the feeling forever, but we do get to trap it like a wasp under a glass, and to examine it a moment before setting it free. [B+/A-]