PLOT A teenage girl joins a traveling magazine sales crew, and is captivated by the leader.
CAST Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough
RATED R (graphic nudity and strong sexual material, coarse language and drug and alcohol use)
PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas
BOTTOM LINE Moody drama bolstered by fine performances.
The paradox of “American Honey,” an epic tone poem about a youthful band of itinerant hucksters, is that it somehow manages to be both rapturous and dispiriting.
Loosely inspired by a 2007 New York Times article by Ian Urbina on the subculture of roving “mag crews” — groups of teenagers and young adults, many of them runaways and dropouts, who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door and in the streets — the scripted drama by writer-director Andrea Arnold isn’t quite cinema vérité, although most of the young cast is composed of nonactors, and the style of filmmaking is certainly fly-on-the-wall — with a vengeance.
The eyes through which we are introduced to the world of “American Honey” belong to Star (Sasha Lane), a somewhat lost and searching Midwesterner who, at the start of the film, chucks what few commitments she has — watching someone else’s kids, it seems, in a dead-end town filed with strip malls — to take up with a mag crew led by the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who teaches Star the tricks of the sales trade, which, according to the movie, mainly involve lying.
Star has a moral compass that causes her to balk at these deceptions, but not at becoming romantically involved with Jake, who appears to be something like a sex slave for the crew’s queen-bee overseer, played with sleepy-eyed intensity by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keough. Their fraught triangle informs much of the film’s action, such as it is. There isn’t much, honestly: “American Honey” is closer to an exploration of mood than melodrama.
At the same time, Arnold — an outsider seemingly embodied by the openhearted, wide-eyed curiosity of Star — finds room in this broken vision of America not just to dream but to hope. Like the inspiration for its title, there’s a wild sweetness to the people — and maybe even to the land — depicted with breathtaking honesty and raw beauty in “American Honey.”