Mere minutes into “American Honey,” her scrappy, sprawling astonishment of a fourth feature, Andrea Arnold hits the audience with a song choice almost too perfect to work. As a girl’s gaze meets a boy’s across the packed aisles of a Midwestern Walmart, the euphoric EDM throb of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s 2011 smash “We Found Love” hijacks the busy soundscape, setting a love story emphatically in motion by the time he hops up to dance on the checkout counter. “We found love in a hopeless place,” the song’s chorus ecstatically declares, over and over, as well it might — does it get more hopeless than Walmart, after all? It’s a gesture so brazenly big and romantically literal that it can’t help but have your heart, and it’s such an early, ebullient cinematic climax that Arnold dares repeat it two hours later, cranking up the song again in a more fraught, nervous context. Like much of what the director risks in “American Honey,” she shouldn’t get away with it, but most defiantly does.
Of course Arnold would choose this song. Be it in the grimy towers of an Essex council estate, the wind-whipped moors of Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire or, now, the truck stops and fleapit motels lining America’s highways, finding love in a hopeless place — or at least a bit of rapture amid the rubble — is something of a recurring theme in the British director’s work, though she’s never previously committed to it in quite such sensual, saturated fashion. Part dreamy millennial picaresque, part distorted tapestry of Americana and part exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical, “Honey” daringly commits only to the loosest of narratives across its luxurious 162-minute running time. Yet it’s constantly, engrossingly active, spinning and sparking and exploding in cycles like a Fourth of July Catherine wheel: If Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” hadn’t already claimed cinematic possession of Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Arnold could aptly have thrown that one onto her playlist too.
After the stripped-to-bone minimalism of her remarkable but divisive “Wuthering Heights” adaptation — pointedly rejected by Cannes selectors after her first two features each scooped a Jury Prize at the festival — one can hardly blame Arnold for treating herself to this kind of sunburnt, open-armed excess. But while the Brit’s first U.S.-set feature has a jangly rhythm all its own, it’s not a complete creative departure either. There are aesthetic flourishes, character dynamics and nature-based motifs here that date as far back as her Oscar-winning 2003 short “Wasp.” Meanwhile, in her thorny but nakedly vulnerable 18-year-old protagonist Star (played by camera-magnetizing newcomer Sasha Lane), Arnold has found a transatlantic twin to Mia Williams, the chipped-enamel heroine of 2009’s “Fish Tank.”
Like Mia, Star has a long life ahead of her but not a whole lot to look forward to. With her parents out of the picture for reasons that require some assembly on the audience’s part, she’s left pretty much on her own to provide for two pre-teen charges, foraging for spoiled food in supermarket dumpsters as she dreams modestly of a trailer to call her own. (Arnold, whose unerring facility with very young child performers is repeatedly proven here, paints this glum home life in achingly specific strokes: One kid’s befuddled attack on a shrink-wrapped chicken is a short film on its own.) When she meets a gaggle of similarly disaffected young misfits at the aforementioned Walmart, she’s immediately drawn to their smirkingly charismatic leader Jake (Shia LaBeouf, sporting his own ratty braid and facial piercings), a kind of enigmatic Pied Piper for the douche-bro generation.
The kids, it turns out, are jointly traveling across the Midwest, eking out a living by selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions — a scheme the film openly acknowledges is antiquated, a nod to a world shifting ever-so-slightly faster than this staid belt of middle America. (Hey, it’s not like they’re hawking Good Housekeeping in Manhattan.) Dumping the children on a dubious guardian, Star rashly jumps on board, acting on her volatile erotic chemistry with Jake and finding an immediate enemy in the collective’s terrifying manager Krystal (a splendid Riley Keough), a spray-tanned devil in a Confederate-flag bikini. From cream-colored Stetsons to star-spangled freight trains to the very casting of Keough (granddaughter of Elvis Presley) herself, Arnold doesn’t shy away from the most blatant of ‘Murican iconography, compressing it all into a kind of heightened, top-heavy American dream on the verge of collapse.
That opening act is about as structured as things get in “American Honey,” as Star tumbles headlong into a routine of on-the-cheap hedonism, petty and not-so-petty crime, and heated sexual sparring with Jake. Just as she learns to accept life on a freewheeling, moment-to-moment basis, so must the audience, tracing the character’s momentous, often painful emotional growth spurts amid the raucous repetition of the gang’s lifestyle.
While exhilarating as sensory spectacle, “American Honey” perhaps works most satisfyingly as a femme-driven corrective to Harmony Korine’s comparable but inferior “Spring Breakers,” a notional girl-power exercise that muted its female characters’ perspective in favor of James Franco’s gonzo mentor figure. That’s not an error Arnold makes. Despite the apparent stunt casting of LaBeouf — who easily delivers his best performance here, bleeding the eccentricities of his own celebrity persona into the character to fascinating, oddly moving effect — the film never slips away from Star’s evolving point of view, or Lane’s electric presence.
Even viewers who find this traveling circus of cheap thrills and cheaper booze wearying would be hard pressed to deny the iridescent vitality with which it has been put on screen. Every technical contribution here, from Joe Bini’s wild, whirligig editing to the relentlessly switching, swarming soundtrack — covering every contemporary pop base from glassily futuristic hip-hop to the warm cornbread country of Lady Antebellum’s title-inspiring ballad, beautifully deployed here as an unabashedly sentimental singalong — serves Arnold’s vision with blazing commitment to the cause. Not for nothing are the closing credits uniquely presented as an alphabetical list of names, democratically merging actors and gaffers alike: If ever a film seemed like an amorphous team effort, it’s this one.
Still, one name does deserve celebration above all others, and that’s Arnold’s steadfast cinematographer Robbie Ryan — a veritable sorcerer of light who conjures one astounding image after another in the director’s signature Academy ratio. The elegantly curtailed proportions of the frame have the added effect of making all these youthful misadventures play, appropriately enough, like Instagram in motion. Not that most cameraphone snappers could find the jewel tones that Ryan excavates in dusty gas-station signage, or negotiate the breathtaking balance between fleshy, flame-colored contours and inky shadow that he finds in the film’s twilit love scenes — moments where the camera appears quite literally to be on fire. Yellow diamonds in the light, indeed.