AMER­I­CAN HONEY

Empire (UK) - - ON SCREEN -

DIREC­TOR An­drea Arnold CAST Sasha Lane, Shia Labeouf, Riley Keough, Arielle Holmes

PLOT Teenager Star (Lane) leaves home to travel around the US with a group of hard-par­ty­ing young sales­peo­ple led by Krys­tal (Keough) and Jake (Labeouf), but must earn her place in the crew.

DIREC­TOR AN­DREA ARNOLD is now cinema’s fore­most chron­i­cler of youth­ful pas­sion. Fish Tank, Wuther­ing Heights and this new road movie fo­cus on char­ac­ters on the brink of adult­hood, throw­ing them­selves head­long af­ter love and life. They ap­pear heed­less, but the common thread between Arnold’s hero­ines is they’re al­ready fa­mil­iar with life’s cru­el­ties, and risk ev­ery­thing to find a place of safety.

Semi-im­pro­vised on a route across the Mid­west, a young woman called Star (new­comer Lane) leaves an abu­sive home where she re­lies on dump­ster-div­ing to feed the chil­dren in her care. Sparks fly with Jake (Labeouf ), chief sales­man in a group of young peo­ple ped­dling mag­a­zine sub­scrip­tions door-to-door, and he in­vites her to join them. Soon she’s knock­ing back booze and drugs with this new gang, gaz­ing wide-eyed at the high-rises of ex­otic Kansas City.

That last mo­ment may seem faux-naive, but Star’s world has so ob­vi­ously been cir­cum­scribed by her poverty that Lane sells it. Arnold ex­pertly es­tab­lishes the de­pri­va­tion she has ex­pe­ri­enced, so her money wor­ries pro­vide a con­stant thrum of ten­sion un­der the loud mu­sic and bac­cha­nals. Un­der­per­form­ing sales­peo­ple may be aban­doned on the road; theft is a fact of life; sell­ing some­thing more in­ti­mate than mag­a­zines is a loom­ing pos­si­bil­ity. Star is slow to trust her com­pan­ions, and is clearly baf­fled by Jake, who draws her in one mo­ment and pushes her away the next. She and Labeouf are mag­netic to­gether, des­per­ately try­ing to un­der­stand their over­whelm­ing mu­tual at­trac­tion. It’s the best he’s been in years.

Con­trasted with their grim re­al­ity, Rob­bie Ryan’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy is bathed in sun­shine and honey. Shot in a 4:3 ra­tio, the squared-off im­age keeps the fo­cus tight on the char­ac­ters amid the vast land­scapes, and gives the story a flavour of In­sta­gram ap­pro­pri­ate to its teen pro­tag­o­nists. But he and Arnold also add a tac­tile sense to ev­ery­thing, a sen­su­ous im­pres­sion of skin on skin and the weight of hands touch­ing. Star and Jake’s re­la­tion­ship is fiery and more than a lit­tle twisted; they come to­gether as much in anger as af­fec­tion, and boss Krys­tal’s (Keough) strange claim on his at­ten­tions com­pli­cates mat­ters in ways the film never bothers to ex­plain.

In fact plot-wise, not much hap­pens at all over the lengthy run­time. But there’s a dif­fer­ence between plot and drama, and there’s drama in Star’s reck­less be­hav­iour. She’s the op­po­site of a nat­u­ral-born sales­woman; Jake’s pat­ter vis­i­bly ir­ri­tates her; and she lashes out at po­ten­tial cus­tomers. Any suc­cess stems from her lack of any in­stinct for self-preser­va­tion, leap­ing into cars with strangers to drive off to places un­known.

And even at her worst, Lane’s lu­mi­nous hu­man­ity blunts any ten­dency older au­di­ences might have to dis­miss this group as rowdy ex­hi­bi­tion­ists with their tat­toos and their hip­pity-hop mu­sic. Arnold’s gang may look like hip­ster out­casts, but they’re kids on an adventure, and their sense of joy, de­spite the world’s hos­til­ity, is ir­re­sistible. HELEN O’HARA

VER­DICT It’s a lit­tle too long, but holds the attention thanks to Lane’s charisma, Ryan’s breath­tak­ing cin­e­matog­ra­phy and the dizzy­ing power of young love.

Could you be­lieve he’d turned right with­out sig­nalling?

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