“American Honey” won’t make you feel very hopeful about The Kids These Days, but it may fill you with compassion for a generation of unwanted young Americans left to fend for themselves in a cratered economy and a collapsed middle class.
With a perceptive eye and unflinching attitude toward the trashy behaviors exhibited by rudderless, underprivileged teens, writer-director Andrea Arnold presents the story of Star (Sasha Lane), an Oklahoma girl who says she’s 18 (we’ll take her word for it) and escapes her dreary existence by joining a crew of feral kids who go door-to-door, town-to-town selling magazines. (“Does anybody actually buy those anymore?” Star asks. “F*** no” is the reply.) This motley assortment of tattooed, tank-topped youth, many of them played by non-actors found by Arnold, has for their captain one Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a rat-tailed trailer-park Casanova whose charms are the primary reason Star joins up. The real boss, though, is Krystal (Riley Keough), barely older than her employees, sometimes clad in a Confederate flag bikini, and not one to be messed with.
Arnold vividly captures the cocky ignorance and exuberant recklessness of kids who were never taught any better, reminding us that such young people are often sexualized by adults (and each other) while presenting a convincing depiction of a foolish young romance. Newcomer Sasha Lane, whom Arnold discovered on a beach during Spring Break, is uncannily good as the wayward Star, earning our sympathy as she naively navigates her way into adulthood. Her arc is one of redemption, and the film’s unwieldy length (163 minutes) underscores the scope of her personal odyssey. Some of the kids, at least, may be all right.
B+ (2 hrs., 43 min.; )