Review: Andrea Arnold's 'American Honey' Shows the Frayed Edges of the American Dream

american honey
Sasha Lane in "American Honey." She won Best Actress for the role at the British Independent Film Awards. American Honey

"My dreams? Nobody ever asked me that," says Shia LaBeouf, speaking in a low croon that gives his voice the crack of broken promises. The latest in LaBeouf's experiments in Method delinquency is Jake, the obnoxiously charismatic hustler in pinstriped trousers, ratty braids and facial piercings—a Fagin for millennials—who's at the center of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold's fourth feature American Honey. It's a dose of nihilist picaresque to set beside Larry Clark's Kids, Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers and Gus Van Sant's paeans to doomed youth—and, for the first hour of its 162-minute running time, American Honey swarms the screen with vibrantly uncouth energy.

We first encounter Jake and his gang turning the aisles of a Wal-Mart in Oklahoma City into an impromptu rave, to the sound of Rihanna's "We Found Love." Before Jake is thrown out, he catches the eye of Star (Sasha Lane), a luscious 18-year-old who doesn't need much persuading to abandon her life foraging for food in dumpsters to hit the road with Jake, making a living by selling door-to-door magazine subscriptions with his motley crew, as they sing along to pounding rap music, dancing, singing, fighting, drinking, toking and screwing their way across the Midwest. Death of a Salesman it is not. Based on a 2007 New York Times article, "For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews," the movie presents the world of door-to-door magazine salesmanship as one long, nonstop bacchanalian circus of cheap thrills, booze and mooning at suburbanites.

You wouldn't want to see them roll up in your drive ("Can we get the dog high?"), but on screen they're scrappy, brazen company, if a little interchangeable. The standout is Krystal, the crew's tough-bitch manager, played with dead-eyed skill by Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter. You don't know whether she was cast for her acting (as glassily unnerving as it was in the recent American TV series The Girlfriend Experience ) or her genes—dressed in a Confederate-flag bikini, she's a piece of ruined Americana. And one to set beside the star-spangled freight trains, derelict shacks, oil fields and dusty gas stations shot by Arnold's cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, with a wonderful eye for the desiccated, frayed edges of the American dream. A pit bull in a Superman cape, peeing. A birthday cake smushed in a parking lot.

The film mines its rough-diamond pathos to the point of repetition. By the time Arnold has gotten around to whipping out the Rihanna song for a second time ("We found love in a hopeless place") and having another of the crew repeat Jake's line about having no dreams ("I'd like my own trailer"), her fixation on proving to us how down she is with these doomed kids has come to seem a failure of imaginative daring: She thinks it's a sign of aesthetic solidarity that she's stuck in the same rut they are. But Lane is a find—bruised, soft, dreamy, hopeful—and the film is at its strongest exploring the erotic chemistry between her and LaBeouf, who fornicate like ferrets beneath the lawn sprinklers of middle America. You hope that whatever artistic demon has been driving LaBeouf has, with this film, finally been exorcised. The kid could do with a shave and a hot breakfast.