'American Honey' and Shia Labeouf remind us why we go to the movies

Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in 'American Honey.'

Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in 'American Honey.' Courtesy of A24

Shia Labeouf delivers the best line reading of the year — and possibly his entire career — early on in Andrea Arnold’s vibrant youth movement of a film: “We explore, like, America.”

If that inarticulate sentence doesn’t impress on paper, all the better. Labeouf’s dunderheaded uncertainty, slight drawl, and deliberate “like” all betray the fact that, though not our wisest emissary, he possesses a homespun wisdom unmistakably of its time and place. The same is true of American Honey.

Labeouf’s Jake is speaking of the “mag crew” to which he belongs, a roving band of wayward teens and twentysomethings traveling through the heartland in a van to sell magazine subscriptions. When they’re not busy hustling issues of Vogue, they’re partying in whatever roadside motel they’ve shacked up in for the night, boys in one room and girls in the other, with no shortage of booze and mind-altering substances to help them unwind.

Jake and his cohorts aren’t the heroes of the film, though — that would be Star. Played by Sasha Lane, a first-time actor discovered by Arnold while on spring break in Panama City, Florida, she has a diamond-in-the-rough quality that’s likewise emblematic of the film as a whole.

In a scene that could easily have been facile, Star first encounters Jake inside a Kmart as Rihanna’s “We Found Love” blares over the speakers. He catches her eye, she catches his, and so he jumps on the checkout line to dance as security guards come to escort him out. As with the “we explore, like, America” line, that probably sounds a little dumb. Up there on the screen, however, it’s an indelible moment — one of those arthouse/pop convergences that reminds you why you go to the movies in the first place.

American Honey is the rare movie to invoke these United States in its title and actually earn it. It should probably come as no surprise that it wasn’t even made by a native: Arnold (who’s from England) brings an outsider’s perspective to her freewheeling road-trip drama, drawing out the alien strangeness of every pit stop and depressed neighborhood. Bees and other small insects make their way into every small space, usually seen in passing but ever-present, as these youths living on the fringes of society try to carve out a piece of the pie for themselves.

There isn’t much plot to speak of. Star and the mag crew travel from town to town, state to state, occasionally making real money for themselves but mostly sharing open containers along with stories of what led them to this itinerant lifestyle.

But the film abounds in moments, evincing a kind of a lived-in naturalism thanks to the looseness of its construction. American Honey is experiential and real, like a documentary travelogue that happens to be marked by some of the year’s most arresting cinematography.

It’s also one of three soon-to-be-released films that premiered at Cannes and run close to three hours in length without a single wasted scene. (The other two being The Handmaiden and Toni Erdmann; Arnold’s film fared best at the vaunted festival, taking home the Jury Prize.) See all three of these glorious movies for proof positive that reports of cinema’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

American Honey
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre