From American Pastoral to American Beauty to American Idiot, any title that uses the word “American” as a modifier adjective is immediately suspect—it insists a degree of authority and preening condescension that signals “profundity.” That’s especially true when the author isn’t even an American; in 1999, American Beauty’s broad assessment of hypocritical suburban conservativism felt unearned coming from Cambridge-educated Englishman Sam Mendes.
Fellow Briton Andrea Arnold has emerged from a very different and very English subgenre: the social-realist study of those less fortunate than the intended audience. The main reference point here is Ken Loach’s Kes, and the motivation (depending on the movie) lies somewhere between well-meaning documentation and poverty porn. But Arnold’s young career has been marked by authenticity; Fish Tank was equally concerned with its teenaged protagonist as her blighted surroundings, while Arnold’s jittery Wuthering Heights adaptation made Heathcliff’s otherness literal by casting an actor of color in the role.
With American Honey, Arnold joins Wim Wenders among Europeans moved to capture the vast, roving heart of America with an epic road movie. And, for the most part, American Honey—which won the Jury Prize at Cannes earlier this year—teems with nomadic detail. About Star, a 17-year-old who impulsively escapes her sub-working-class existence by joining a band of runaways-turned-magazine salespeople, the movie has an intimate, adolescent restlessness that verges on scuzzy poetry. The crew—all non-actors save the charismatically predatory (and never better) Shia LeBeouf—is somewhere between capitalist cult and traveling carnival. Their meager earnings flow through Krystal (half mother, half pimp) who monitors every activity and metes out ritualistic justice. From the windows of their cramped van, they scout wealthy neighborhoods from Oklahoma to Kansas City to the oil fields of North Dakota and tailor phony pitches to suit the area’s median income. (Local audiences will enjoy an extended sequence shot in the city, and KC Film Commissioner Steph Scupham is thanked in the credits.)
The Interstate setting is well-worn territory, and American Honey comes close to achieving the hypnotic monotony of road movies like Two-Lane Blacktop and The Brown Bunny. But its improvisatory luridness and hyper-sexuality more closely suggest Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers). And while American Honey skirts that director’s freak-show sensationalism, it lacks his gonzo unpredictability. (Shia LeBeouf is no James Franco.)
That makes it feel every bit as long as its 164 minutes. Arnold has always had a weakness for over-emphasizing her case, and American Honey repeats its central argument more often than necessary. Star’s situation is, of course, barely-legal prostitution—a point the movie needlessly literalizes. But, as in Fish Tank, Arnold’s outsized sympathy and tenderness overwhelm her exhortative reflexes. That intimacy extends to the cramped, Academy-ratio camerawork by longtime collaborator Robbie Ryan.
Tellingly, this road movie doesn’t begin or end at a coastline; its journey and destination are interior—a youthful hunger for freedom that’s always just out of reach. With American Honey, Arnold goes looking for America and finds something universal.
American Honey. Directed and written by Andrea Arnold. Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LeBeouf, and Riley Keough. Opens in Kansas City October 14.