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'American Honey' Trains Its Lens On Traveling Magazine Crews


This is FRESH AIR. Andrea Arnold began her career as an actress on British television before becoming a director of semi-improvised films, beginning with "Red Road" in 2006 and moving on to "Fish Tank" and an adaptation of "Wuthering Heights." Her new film, "American Honey," is her first set in the U.S. It follows a teenage girl who wakes up with a group of young people, many of them runaways, traveling around selling magazines. It won a special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The famous story about British filmmaker Andrea Arnold is that she saw a teenager screaming at her boyfriend on a train platform and realized she'd found the lead for "Fish Tank," her 2009 film about a volatile girl in a working-class housing project. The story suggests Arnold's truest filmmaking passion - putting a fictional frame around something authentic. Although she uses many professionals in her wonderful new film, "American Honey," she spotted her teenage lead, Sasha Lane, sunbathing on a beach.

She based the movie on a group of kids she accompanied on a trip across the U.S. They were a magazine crew, part of a subculture of often homeless teens who travel together by bus, stopping in large and small towns to sell magazine subscriptions door to door. They also party hard in their seedy motels. Lane plays a girl named Star who cares for her little brother and sister in the house of a creepy stepfather.

Early in "American Honey," the three are sifting through a trash can outside a grocery store when a bus full of rowdy teens turns into a nearby parking lot. Star is curious, intrigued and plainly turned on by the older leader, Jake, played by Shia LeBoeuf. Jake is into Star right back. There's a current between them.


SASHA LANE: (As Star) What kind of job?

SHIA LABEOUF: (As Jake) It's a job - a business opportunity.

LANE: (As Star) OK.

LABEOUF: (As Jake) We go door to door. We sell magazines door to door, being friendly. You know, you seem friendly, make $300 a day if you're good, if you're smart. You seem pretty smart, so figured I'd ask. Come with us.

LANE: (As Star) You can't just give me a job like that.

LABEOUF: (As Jake) Yes, I [expletive] can. I'm the business manager.

LANE: (As Star) Is that why you're wearing those pants?

LABEOUF: (As Jake, laughter) What the - is wrong with my pants? You don't like my pants?

LANE: (As Star) I don't know. You kind of look a little...

LABEOUF: (As Jake) Donald Trumpish (ph).

LANE: (As Star) Kind of look more like a gangster to me, except for the sparkly phone.

LABEOUF: (As Jake) It's part of it. Come with us. We do more than work, you know. We explore, like, America. We party, a whole bunch of [expletive]. It's cool.

EDELSTEIN: It's not a spoiler to say the allure of freedom is too much for Star. In a wrenching scene, she leaves her little siblings with her mother who'd abandoned them and jumps on the loud, teeming bus. Many of the teens in "American Honey" are non-actors Arnold found during her research. They're a blur of unharnessed energy, rushing around, rolling on the ground, playfully punching one another. But there's a powerful overseer, a sexually flamboyant young woman named Krystal, played by Riley Keough, to whom the kids turn over their earnings. Krystal takes care of their physical needs but reminds her employees she doesn't run a charity. If they don't sell, they're cast adrift. In Star, she recognizes a potential equal, someone with smarts and a strong will. You're a real American honey, says Krystal, like I am.

I naively hoped "American Honey" would make the case for subscribing to print magazines. No such luck. These kids have no idea what they're selling. They tell potential customers they're wayward youth pulling themselves up by the old bootstraps. Some of the best scenes are of Jake showing Star the ropes, spinning fantastical lies while Star tries to keep from breaking up.

The chief complaint I've heard about "American Honey" is it's long. That and that there's not much of a plot. True and true, but to me, it didn't feel like two and a half hours. I loved watching the landscapes whizzing by through the bus windows. I loved the characters. Sasha Lane has a great camera face. You see the longing for connection in her eyes, but her upper lip curls in a way that suggests skepticism and healthy self-possession. Star's only loss of control is around Jake.

Perhaps you've read about Shia LaBeouf's - what's the euphemism? - eccentricities, but acting clearly centers him, and he's magnetic. The third point of the triangle is Riley Keough, who's the granddaughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley. Her Krystal has a soft face but hard eyes. She's always weighing the odds, balancing the outlaw lifestyle she craves with the business discipline that underwrites it.

Another thing that keeps you engrossed is that no scene plays out as you expect. Late in the film, Star has a fight with Jake and runs away and jumps into a pickup with three middle-aged men in 10-gallon hats. They clearly can't believe their luck. And when Star starts throwing back shots of Mezcal, you fear they'll turn predatory. Maybe they will, maybe they won't, but they're not predators. They're improvising their lives the way Star is improvising hers. That's what I love about "American Honey." It's as if these people already existed, waiting for Andrea Arnold to find them and put them on film.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On the next FRESH AIR, journalist Robert Draper. His New York Times magazine article is about the split in the conservative media over Donald Trump. Some question whether he's a true conservative, but he knows how to work the media.

ROBERT DRAPER: He has this gift, Donald Trump does, for flattering people, for making them feel like he really, really is interested in their advice. I speak, by the way, from personal experience because I've spent a lot of time with Trump.

DAVIES: Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.