American Honey, the first movie set in the States by British filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank), finds the director working with some fairly ludicrous self-imposed hindrances: a largely untrained cast, Shia LaBeouf at his most methody-bedraggled, and a nearly three-hour running time. That she makes these all meld together beautifully feels like some kind of weird alchemy, really.
Inspired by a New York Times article, the barely there story follows a Texas teen (the strikingly confident newcomer Sasha Lane) reduced to dumpster diving to get by. After catching the eye of a magnetic lost boy (a very good LaBeouf), she joins up with a van full of similarly ragged youths who travel the country selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door.
Comparisons to Terrence Malick may not carry as much positive weight as they used to, but Arnold’s tone poem shares some definite visual and philosophical similarities with his earlier work, as well as a knack for setting up unpredictably rewarding interactions with the supporting characters. (Also like Malick, she sometimes has a tendency to narratively drop everything and follow a caterpillar.)
Ultimately, though, American Honey stands as a testament to Arnold’s own sizzling gifts, including the lived-in rapport of the cast, an absolutely inspired use of music (a Mazzy Star needle drop occurs at precisely the right scientific nanosecond), and especially her remarkable eye, which captures both cheap motels and wide-open spaces with the same fascinated, nonjudgmental curiosity.
While the film’s essential shagginess may be an understandable turn-off to some, the way that Arnold captures these dead-end kids without a hint of a Larry Clark leer is strangely lovely and absorbing to behold. During a startlingly raw outdoor sex scene, the camera momentarily skitters a step back, only to quickly move back to intimate closeness. This is a movie that never stops taking everything in.