The Lost Boys and Lost Girls in Andrea Arnold’s electric “American Honey” depend so much on music to set the mood for their day, this film is almost a musical even though it’s about as far from a traditional “musical” as a film can get.
• Lady Antebellum’s title track provides a road-trip moment reminiscent of the sing-along to “Tiny Dancer” in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.”
• A ragged-looking group of teenagers essentially takes over a Kmart in aggressive but non-violent fashion, dancing joyously to Rihanna’s “We Found Love.”
• Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Dream Baby Dream” is referenced in two key moments in the film.
• Steve Earle’s thumping anthem “Copperhead Road,” Mazzy Star’s tripped-out “Fade Into You” and even the Dead Kennedys’ “I Kill Children” also make indelible marks.
The teens in “American Honey” feel like the spiritual offspring of the skateboarding, sexually voracious, hard-partying wanderers in Larry Clark’s 1995 indie teen shocker “Kids.”
But instead of the New York of “Kids,” we’re on the road in Middle America in “American Honey,” following a ragtag collection of runaways and misfits who have found an almost cult-ish bond working the road, selling magazine subscriptions.
That’s right, magazine subscriptions. For decades, adolescents and teens working as part of so-called “mag crews” have worked door to door in suburbs and small towns across the South and Midwest, selling magazine subscriptions and telling stories of how they’ll be able to move up the company ladder, or fund a college scholarship, or otherwise better themselves, if only they can accumulate so many points and earn so many dollars. (The companies behind these crews have attracted the attention of government agencies.)
Writer-director Arnold taps into that world as the launching point for “American Honey,” a brilliant and startling slap to the senses. At times the symbolism grows repetitive, and the running time of 2 hours, 42 minutes admittedly tested my attention span on occasions — but this is an original, sometimes breathtaking depiction of a certain slice of American life.
Newcomer Sasha Lane is 18-year-old Star, whose days begin with dumpster diving and end with fending off the advances of her mother’s creepy, abusive ex-boyfriend. (Her mother, a meth addict, died some four years earlier.) Given that bleak existence, little wonder Star jumps at the chance to join Shia LaBeouf’s Jake and his band of misfit road warriors, who spend their nights partying and their days peddling those magazine subscriptions to anyone gullible enough to believe their fictional hard-luck stories.
At first it seems as if Jake is in charge of the crew, but he’s really just the right-hand man to Riley Keough’s Krystal, who handles all the finances, sets up the trips, takes the lion’s share of the profits and decides who will stay with the group and who will be left on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere to fend for herself. Whereas LeBeouf tries WAY too hard with the crazy hairdo and the wacky wardrobe and the mini-Sean Penn attempts at rage and charisma, Keough is much more effective because she does so much with so much less. Her deadpan, dead-eyed line readings, especially when she’s putting Star in her place, are chilling.
“American Honey” is filled with memorable set pieces, from the upper-middle-class Christian woman who invites Jake and Star into her home and berates them because they haven’t found God — even as her tween daughter and the daughter’s friends are twerking up a storm on the patio just behind her; to Star’s strange encounter with three 60ish cowboys wearing white hats in a white Cadillac; to a scene where Star knocks on a door and meets a family clearly representing her own past.
This film is the real deal. It will bring you into a world that exists parallel to yours, right outside your car window as you run errands on Main Street.
A24 presents a film written and directed by Andrea Arnold. Rated R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens). Running time: 162 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.