“Steady as a preacher, free as a weed,” goes the Lady Antebellum tune that gives filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s teenage-island-of-misfit-toys road movie its title. You can see why those two things might be aspirations for Star (newcomer Sasha Lane), the teenager we first meet digging through the trash for food, grubby kid siblings in tow. Stability and liberation aren’t things she comes across a lot. Her life is a wreck, her residence is a parody of Southern trashiness (ants on the counter, handsy stepdad in the living room, Dixie flag on the wall) and this podunk town offers her nothing but poverty and pain. So why wouldn’t that guy (Shia LaBeouf) making eyes at her in a passing minivan attract her attention? And when this Romeo with a rattail – his name is Jake – offers her a job selling magazines in red-state America alongside fellow miscreants and fuck-ups, why wouldn’t Star take up with underage scam-artist pirates? Kerouac and his companions zigged and zagged across the U.S. to a soundtrack of hard bop. These 21st-century free spirits prefer trap music, booty bass and country-fried pop. The song of the open highway, however, remains the same.
For many folks, one look at this unruly, Juggalo-like band of gypsies would be enough to have them running for the hills. For Arnold, a British filmmaker who’s never met a lyrical outsider story she didn’t love, these kids are the Great American Forgotten, and it’s to the film’s credit that by the end of this nearly three-hour gutterpunk odyssey, you view them as something like conquering heroes. Zipping through a landscape of weary truckers, hypocritical Christians and fend-for-themselves 10-year-olds wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts, she presents a view of the U.S. that’s part Robert Frank portfolio, part Harmony Korine freak-out. This is a woman who turned her 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights into a both a flipped bird to Masterpiece Theater lit-cinema and a reclamation of the novel’s feral passion, and you can feel a similar sense of capital-R Romantic subversion going on here regarding the road flick. Every trip through interchangeable Middle American burgs and hormonal exchange between the leads is given a grungy-but-gorgeous reverie treatment. This land is their land.
She’s also a great director of professional and nonprofessional actors, and the performance Arnold coaxes out of Lane – a college student who Arnold discovered running around a Florida beach during spring break – couldn’t be more raw, or more right-on. Able to go from pent-up and pensive to a ball of energy in a single dreadlocked bound, the 20-year-old brings an untamed screen presence that somehow grounds the proceedings even as she threatens to go rogue at any second. It’s a cliché to say you can’t take your eyes off a performer, but whether you’re watching Lane trade war stories, get fed Mezcal shots by a trio of cowboys – the embodiment of white-male-privilege menace – or get hot and heavy with LaBeouf’s mondo sleazy manboy, you’re genuinely afraid to look away for fear of missing something.
And speaking of the tainted movie star-cum-performance artist: This is inarguably the best work he’s done in years. You feel like he’s finally found a director not only knows how to use that oddball crazysexycool vibe but who actually creatively gets him; while the suffix needs to be retired, we’re comfortable saying that some sort of Shianaissance may now be in effect. (As for Riley Keough’s mag-crew boss lady, the Girlfriend Experience actress ends up on the slightly-underused end of the spectrum. But thanks to her, you will walk away thinking that having someone rub lotion on your bare legs while you dress down an underling is the ultimate fuck-you power move.)
Like a lot of road trips, American Honey goes on a little too long and takes a few too many detours; by the time Star finds herself giving a pitiful after-hours handjob to an oil-rig worker, you start hoping you arrive at your final destination sooner rather than later. But what Arnold and her cast pull off here in this wonderfully messy teenage-wasteland travelogue feels like a reclamation of sorts. Once upon a time, another filmmaker – Lars von Trier – ended his curdled movie Dogville with David Bowie’s “Young Americans” played over a montage of our homegrown squalor, one last ironic punchline to his Our Town piss-take. As for Arnold, she bows out with that titular Lady Antebellum theme ditty being sung, majestically and sincerely, by our nation’s great unwashed, undernourished and underprivileged. “Couldn’t wait to get goin’, wasn’t quite ready to leave” they all yell out, the air from the open windows blowing through their hair. Keep on truckin’, kids.