‘American Honey’ a long, winding road to nowhere

October 12, 2016

“American Honey” opens in a dumpster, where a dreadlocked teenager named Star digs up a prize — a raw chicken still in its bloody shrink wrap. The scene is a blunt reminder that the American dream remains elusive, and even impossible, for many in this country.

This is a road movie, and Star (taking a cue from Huck Finn?) runs away to become part of a caravan of bedraggled and wounded young people. All due credit goes to the film for its compassionate portrayal of these lost souls, who are both victims and victimizers.

British director Andrea Arnold has made several movies (including “Fish Tank”) notable for pulling no punches, and “American Honey” is in the same vein. I got the feeling she has been looking at the films of Harmony Korine (“Gummo,” “Spring Breakers”), known for rubbing the viewer’s face in the ugliness of highly dysfunctional families and troubled, often drug-addled, teens.

The gist of “American Honey” is Star’s experience as part of a floating team of con artists, young people who travel in a van from town to town (the film takes them from Oklahoma to North Dakota, the America of K Marts and strip malls) hustling magazine subscriptions door to door. These crews are a real-life phenomenon, and they are indeed scam artists, but the outfits they work for keep them in what amounts to indentured servitude.

Star (portrayed by an exceptionally vital newcomer, Sasha Lane) is brought into the group by an experienced recruiter, played by Shia LaBeouf as a wild man replete with facial piercings and a long braid. The rest of the crew (acted by nonprofessionals) is a remarkable assortment of runaways, troublemakers and disturbed young people, connoisseurs of hip-hop who stoke themselves for the long van rides with booze, pot, hard-edged banter and occasional fisticuffs.

They are kept in line by a tough cookie named Krystal (Riley Keough), only a bit older than her charges. She collects their takings at the end of the day and, when necessary, deals out harsh discipline — including abandonment. The shifting relationships between Star, Krystal and the LaBeouf character provide a bit of structure to this loose tale.

Much of “American Honey” is devoted to showing us the encounters between the hustlers and their targets at various economic levels (though more lower than higher). The exchanges follow a pattern: Cash is elicited through phony sob stories that vary according to what will appeal to the chump (my dad’s away in Iraq; I’m trying to earn points toward a scholarship). Perhaps those who buy these tall tales deserve to be fleeced.

Arnold’s strength is in immersing us in the lives of these orphans — they are a parent’s nightmare, but they have a kind of disheveled dignity that’s impossible to deny, and their bravado is a cover for desperate needs.

What’s less successful is some heavy-handed America bashing, such as when Star hooks up with three white-hatted cowboy types (one played by Will Patton) driving a big old convertible. The scene gives her a chance to prove she’s a gutsy sort, which is fine, but, like other sequences in the film, it relies on particularly tiresome stereotypes.

The movie’s running time of two hours and 43 minutes is excessive, and it feels even longer because of how much Arnold insists on this exhausted notion of the general crumminess of flyover America. The film engages when it focuses on the scammer subculture off duty, at ease in all its lowdown glory. At other times, “American Honey” extends an invitation to smugness that serves it poorly.

Running time: 163 minutes

MPAA rating: R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, profanity, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens)