Chasing the American dream

Sweet hopelessness in a story of youthful hope

Sasha Lane in American Honey.

They're brashly young, scantily clad, sexed up boys and girls, and they smoke and drink and party hard all night to throbbing rap music and EDM before hitting the road, knocking on the doors that are opened by lonely housewives of the American Midwest. They're a magazine sales crew, the wandering troop that haunts highways, truck stops and roadside motels. They're at once very literal and curiously sensual, the image of the American dream, ever out of reach, soul-crushing and rescued only by love (and perhaps, God help us, by Shia LaBeouf).

Andrea Arnold is a Scottish filmmaker known for her rough-edged work about female struggles and class-conscious drama. American Honey is her first film shot in the US, and this sprawling, sometimes messy, sometimes absorbing film (it's nearly 3 hours long) is saturated with her favourite themes: love in the loveless place, class divide, economic inequality and a celebration and questioning of feminine pride. Plus it is a startling portrait of middle America -- suburban desolation, Walmart blues, Texan riches and oil rig rednecks.

The film premiered in Cannes last May, but in Trump's USA, this hardened romantic adventure suddenly acquires a sociological honesty you don't see that often -- I would say nearly none in, say, the nominees for the Oscar's best picture (except Hell Or High Water).

The main woman is called Star (Sasha Lane), a plucky teenager who flees the misery of home to join the magazine sales crew led by bitchy queen Krystal (Riley Keough) and her right-hand man/lover Jake (LaBeouf). Star becomes a member of this strange gang: hormone-driven and barely out of their teens, they roam small towns in a van trying to push magazine subscriptions -- golf, cars, cooking, general interest, etc -- by going door-to-door and deploying all dubious tricks to get clueless customers to pay. They lie and seduce, because it usually works better than normal sales pitches. At night they return to report to Krystal, who humiliates those who don't make the target. They also play loud music, take off their tops and dance and wrestle as a way to boost their morale. The next day, the next fleapit motel, the next town, the same hope of selling more magazines that everyone knows are useless.

This is a film about young people trying to make money, very little money, and -- as the Rihanna song We Found Love announces at the beginning -- look for emotional sanctuary that can be mistaken as love. It's a dreamy, romantic voyage to nowhere, which doesn't matter at all to these people because they live only for the moment, the snatch of time that gives them the high. But what gives more weight to the film is Arnold's keen sense of social class: the rich-poor contrast, the economic inequality that she must feel to be the same in her home country of Scotland and now in the American suburbia (Arnold's previous film, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, was grossly under-seen). Here, Star's escapade with three white-clad Texan gentlemen is one of the film's most curious sequences -- a satire of money, female gut and how the poor negotiate the unpredictability of life better than anyone else.

Yes, Arnold can seem overindulgent -- the film feels long at 163 minutes and by the last half-hour or so you feel like you've heard too many youth anthems thrown at you from the screen (including Lady Antebellum's titular song). American Honey is thin on plot, and yet it is sustained, often heroically, by the footloose style, the cinematography by Robbie Ryan (in the square Academy ratio), and the way Arnold deliberately lets the characters drift through their aimless destiny as if there was no script. But of course there is. The film enjoys its moments of sweet hopelessness but at the end, in a sane way, this is a story of youthful hope. The US needs that as much as we all do.

American Honey

Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough. Directed by Andrea Arnold.

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