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Review: ‘American Honey’ Proves Andrea Arnold is One of the Best Working Filmmakers and Finds a Breakout Star in Sasha Lane

Cannes Review: 'American Honey' Proves Andrea Arnold is One of the Best Working Filmmakers and Finds a Breakout Star in Sasha Lane

With only four movies in 10 years, director Andrea Arnold has developed a rich filmography that other filmmakers spend decades trying to accumulate. The former actor has made her name with a delicate, sometimes unnerving approach to portraying alienated characters fighting to express their individuality. While her “Wuthering Heights” adaptation tried to take her technique to a grander scale, “American Honey” completes the effort with its sprawling portrait of young outcasts. It’s the closest thing to a magnum opus in Arnold’s blossoming career.

Anchored by a stunning turn by newcomer Sasha Lane, “American Honey” finds the British Arnold importing her style to the American midwest. Lane plays 18-year-old Star, a soft-spoken Texas native raised in squalid conditions by her abusive father in Oklahoma. In the opening minutes, she encounters a peculiar group of energetic youth at her local supermarket, headed by the suave Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who talks the young woman into escaping her broken home and joining the merry gang in a cross-country odyssey. Arnold’s usual combination of lyrical imagery and gritty behavior reaches its apex here, as Star gets swept up in the excitement of fresh, unfiltered reboot.

Before long, Star finds herself huddled in the back of a minivan with the boisterous crew as they continue through small towns selling magazine subscriptions to finance their hedonistic exploits. Through the colorful group of characters — with names like Pagan, Katness, and QT — suggest that Star has finally found her place with pariahs who, like her, don’t really belong anywhere. Imagine “Spring Breakers” with a clearer trajectory: “American Honey” invokes the explosive sense of liberty that comes with living dangerously.

Stéphanie Di Giusto’s debut feature “The Dancer.” Set during the turn of the 20th century, the film will see Soko taking on the role of famed dancer Loie Fuller as she navigates a complicated relationship with her protege Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp). Having two films in Cannes is a major step forward for any performer, but having such different roles to show off range on the international circuit is absolutely huge.

Of course, it’s never that simple, and it doesn’t take long for Star to discover the seedier aspects of the group’s agenda. Joining forces with the seductive Jake, she learns the trade of going door to door and preying on the sympathies of the upper middle class to get them to open their wallets.

Overseeing their every move is group leader Krystal (Riley Keough), who lords over the seedy motel rooms and late-night party sessions with a dictatorial grip. Jake himself is no angel, packing a pistol for ambiguous reasons and veering from the role of supportive mentor to controlling lunatic. Nevertheless, Star quickly falls for his outlaw attitude, and the pair’s chemistry is so enticing that for a while it seems as though they inhabit a neorealist riff on “Bonnie and Clyde,” running wild across the American landscape untethered to any sense of responsibility.

It’s safe to say that LaBeouf, bearded and powerfully virile, has never been better in the role of a hustler whose carefree attitude provides Star with exactly the burst of unhinged behavior she seeks. However, the movie primarily belongs to Lane, in a star-making turn that finds her oscillating from introverted loner to defiant rebel.

Arnold, shooting once again in a 4:3 ratio, presents “American Honey” as an intimate window into a much bigger world. From a botched attempt at wooing middle-aged cowboys to a gentler encounter with a good-natured trucker, Star’s off-kilter adventures unfold like a series of stanzas about the underrepresented struggles of working-class life.

Shot by the great Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, he captures Star’s world with vibrant contrasts — from the bright greens of suburbia to the drab grays of parking lots. Arnold lingers on natural imagery with a haunting, otherworldly quality, bolstering the perception that Star is discovering the universe for the first time on her own terms.

The movie’s tone oscillates with Star’s experiences. As she engages in passionate sex with Jake on more than one occasion, the camera sits close by, embodying the immediate release she experiences from their connection. Elsewhere, during a seedy nighttime encounter from the front seat of a car parked in an isolated oil field, the nearby flames pierce the shadows with an ominous quality that reflects her shifting mindset. Arnold develops an inherent suspense to each scene, as it’s never fully clear if Star can ever find stability or will simply keep up the chase.

At 142 minutes, this cycle of soul-searching at times struggles from redundancy and falls short of developing the rest of the ensemble. But that itself speaks to Star’s limited understanding of her surroundings. When the gang blasts Rihanna (or countless other pop songs that percolate throughout the soundtrack), “American Honey” transforms into a kind of grimy musical about the subjective energy that comes with living in the moment.

READ MORE: 11 Movies By Female Filmmakers That Should’ve Gone to Cannes

Arnold’s command of the movie’s meandering structure makes “American Honey” continually fascinating, no matter how much it lingers on ephemeral exchanges and aimless feuds. It’s a magisterial achievement that builds on her previous accomplishments while stretching beyond the constraints of their cleaner narratives. The movie unfolds as a cyclical meditation on the search for meaning in an empty landscape that stretches out in every direction. Mercifully, she avoids any blatant self-analysis, letting her ineloquent cast do all the talking. “We explore, like… America,” Jake says when he makes his initial pitch to Star. While on the surface that may sound like a half-baked conceit, “American Honey” proves just how deep that exploration can go.

Grade: A-

“American Honey” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the U.S. later this year.

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