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Watching American Honey, you feel like a ball hurtling down a bowling alley. Americana — its tropes and types — provides the skittles. The ball is the bus we’re in, bearing a “mag crew” across the land, young door-to-door hustlers selling magazine subscriptions. (Many of them are dropouts, dopeheads or minor delinquents grabbing a passing avocation.) And the bowler is British filmmaker Andrea Arnold.
Arnold comes to America after three films that explored a more native and personal form of picaresque, the byways of English passion; though even those movies — Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights — had a flair and impetus beyond the norms of Cinema Blighty.
Her new film is ridiculously exciting. The subject may sound resistant to funkiness. “They live hard, love hard, rock hard, they’re — ” subscription sellers? But the movie grows into an epic in the Altman mode: a 163-minute celebration of the heightened ordinary, a dressed-down yet hopped-up Nashville, baring the lives and dreams of its characters as they bump or bang up against the everyday. Music is omnipresent. It sets moods or counterpoints them. It blares exuberantly from city-escaped ghetto blasters as the kids improvise dances by the roadside. It sketches sadness, frustrations and the music of misfits.
The new girl on the crew, a mixed-race teen with a troubled life who parks the half-siblings in her care with their mum to take this adventure with a breadwinning band, is wonderfully played by first-time actress Sasha Lane. She is shown the ropes by Shia LaBeouf’s handsome, promiscuous hellion, a bearded, tattooed mini-hunk. Falling for her blend of feistiness and innocence, he shows her more than the ropes. The whole movie shows us more.
It shows us a middle America in barely dormant ferment and discontent, instinct with the social-psychological volatility that will end up conjuring a Donald Trump presidential campaign. It shows us capitalism on the hoof, in funny, sardonic scenes of doorstep huckstering. And it shows the stream of daily life, youthful life, in a way few other films have. The square-framed images, busy and handheld, are like sumptuously textured home movies. They are the work of Robbie Ryan, right now the best cinematographer in the indie cinema world. And the dialogue, cataracting its vim and vernacular, is by Arnold in — we’re guessing — part-collaboration with her varied and brilliantly gifted cast.