The voice of Rihanna reverberates throughout “American Honey,” singing “We found love in a hopeless place.” It’s no coincidence her 2011 hit becomes the defining message of this gritty youth drama — a story of outcasts within a throwaway society who still seek love (and even hope) in a hopeless place.
Oscar-winning director Andrea Arnold presents a sprawling odyssey examining the haves and have-nots of the Midwest. Like the youth culture it centers on, “American Honey” embraces episodic, wandering rawness that often resonates deeply and distinctively. Moments in the movie are so perceptive that they feel culled from a documentary made by an omnipotent being; others drift by with no more impact than the pretty shots of nature intercut into scenes.
The nearly three-hour film earned multiple honors at Cannes, but it’s polarizing, drawing an even amount of scorn and praise.
We first meet Star (dazzling newcomer Sasha Lane) in backwater Oklahoma as she and her loser boyfriend’s kids dumpster dive to score a half-frozen chicken.
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Then she stumbles upon Jake (Shia LaBeouf) at a supermarket while the Rihanna tune plays in the background. Decked out in hipster suspenders, a braided rat tail and eyebrow piercings, Jake represents the scruffy freedom Star lacks.
“Want to go to Kansas City?” he offers.
So Star effectively runs away to join the circus. In this case, that circus is a traveling band of youngsters who pack into a 15-passenger van and move state-to-state selling magazine subscriptions.
“This is where Superman lives,” one of the team quips as they drive around downtown KC, marveling at the size of the buildings.
Jake teams with the novice Star to show her how to get invited into people’s homes. In ritzy Mission Hills, they pretend to be intrepid K-State students needing money for a new cafeteria.
But their burgeoning relationship annoys boss Krystal (Riley Keough of “Mad Max: Fury Road”), a scowling dragon who favors a Confederate flag bikini and seems interested only in the cash her troop harvests. So much so that she demands that the lowest sellers of each month fist-fight each other.
As the group heads through the Plains states into the Dakotas, Star’s sense of what’s important gradually shifts.
English filmmaker Arnold, who won a 2005 Oscar for her short film “Wasp,” took inspiration for her fictional endeavor from a 2007 New York Times article investigating these “mag crews.” She gathered most of her cast from a crop of non-actors randomly spotted when trekking across America. Lane was discovered on a Florida beach while on spring break from Texas State University.
The dreadlocked, tattooed Lane navigates one challenging scene after another. Her Star exudes both rebellion and resilience. Yet it’s her amiable naiveté that almost functions like a bulletproof vest in some of the sketchy circumstances she finds herself in.
There are moments when this buoyant woman appears certain to suffer a nasty fate. But this isn’t a horror movie or even a cautionary tale. It’s a slice-of-life docudrama, and like many millennials, she often narrowly wriggles out of bleak situations with her life and limbs intact, though not always her dignity.
LaBeouf’s work opposite Lane reminds the viewer why a decade ago the former Hollywood child star (who’s only now 30) was briefly regarded as the “It” actor of his generation. While the “Transformers” veteran may have dominated the box-office in successive films, he has seldom delivered the kind of charismatic audaciousness he does here. Arnold proves again and again that she brings out the best in performers.
Narratively, however, her choices grow debatable. So many cutaways to insects. So many sexless sex scenes. So much singing along with the radio. Rarely has a film featured a soundtrack (which includes the Lady Antebellum song of the movie’s title) that intrudes into the flow of the story. Sometimes it’s effective; often it’s tiresome.
Ultimately, Arnold doesn’t figure out what to do with Jake or Krystal, and her failure to resolve their love-triangle narratives comes across as more frustrating than artistically ambiguous. But she does know what to do with Star. And her closing scenes of cathartic immersion are perfect.
Star may not have found love, necessarily. But she found something deep within herself that hardly seems hopeless.
(At Alamo Drafthouse and Town Center.)
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 2:42.
Filmed in KC
The scenes of Kansas City and Mission Hills were filmed on location in spring 2015. If you missed Sunday’s story about the visit, find it at KansasCity.com/entertainment.