Not long into "American Honey," Andrea Arnold's wild, rambling and astonishingly beautiful fourth feature, you start to notice the insects. A bumblebee has a close brush with death. Moths and butterflies flit about the edge of the frame. The last thing you see (this isn't a spoiler) is a sprinkle of fireflies gathering over a pond at dusk.
Those who know the films Arnold made in her native Britain, including "Red Road" and "Fish Tank," may be reminded of the lush streak of animal symbolism that has coursed through her work since her Academy Award-winning 2003 short, "Wasp." But if the insects we see here are natural fixtures of the film's rural Midwestern landscapes and suburban neighborhoods, they also seem strangely magnetized by the camera, as though drawn to the inner flame of the Oklahoma teenager who is both the film's protagonist and its center of gravity.
You can hardly blame them. The girl, whose name is Star, is first seen foraging in a dumpster before hitching a ride home, back to a hard-scrabble life of neglect and abuse that no one would call alluring. But as played with startling self-assurance and insouciant energy by 20-year-old newcomer Sasha Lane, she also possesses the sort of incandescence that takes the camera hostage and never relinquishes it over the course of an electrifying, exhausting 162 minutes.
She's a remarkably timeless movie subject. Her head may be piled high with dreadlocks, her thinly draped body covered with tattoos, but she also has the sort of sharp, indelible profile you might find on an ancient Greek coin.
Her exuberant physicality is used to brilliant effect by the great cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who photographed the film in the Academy aspect ratio — a nearly square format that keeps Star's surroundings, eye-catching though they are, from displacing her in the frame. The camera races and races to keep this fast and furious young woman locked in its sights, turning her into an object of both pursuit and contemplation.
Star's backstory is left deliberately sketchy. Driven less by the rudiments of plot than by the hurtling momentum of the camera and the pulsating hip-hop beats of a wall-to-wall soundtrack, "American Honey" makes time for the occasional sideways digression but never once steals a glance in the rear-view mirror. Arnold gives us a few images of Star's home life — a squalid house, an empty fridge, an unwanted sexual come-on — and trusts us to piece together a familiar tale of wrecked lives and dashed dreams.
At one point, she slips in a shot of two discarded, worn-looking red slippers — a nervy cinematic allusion that takes full flight when Star slips out her bedroom window and seizes control of her destiny. Like a black millennial Dorothy who wants to fly over the rainbow but never quite makes it out of the Midwest — and also like Mia, the fiery and irrepressible young heroine of "Fish Tank" — Star is reckless, impulsive and utterly impervious to the audience's scorn or pity. She has a lot of growing up to do, to be sure, and much more to learn, but Arnold couldn't be less interested in scolding her or hastening her education.
With its its jagged rhythms, thistle-rough textures and dreamy, star-spangled lyricism, "American Honey" is less a character study than a full-on sensory immersion in a young woman's rapidly shifting consciousness. It's also an impromptu musical, a go-for-broke generational snapshot and a shimmering deconstruction of the romance of the open road, not to mention an actual romance. An irresistible early scene at a Super Kmart finds Star locking eyes with a charismatic young sleaze named Jake (Shia LaBeouf, sporting a rat tail and eyebrow piercings), their across-the-aisles attraction sealed by a well-timed blast of Rihanna.
A tour de force for LaBeouf, who has never had a role so shrewdly tailored to his bizarre off-screen exploits or his cocksure on-screen charm, Jake invites Star to join his roving band of teenage drifters, misfits and outcasts as they make their way across the Midwest. With nothing to tie her down, she climbs into their van and tags along as they descend on homes and truck stops, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. The wares may be hopelessly out of date, but what these lost kids are really selling is their own dead-end sob stories, or some exaggerated version thereof — anything that will stir the charitable empathy of the poor and wealthy alike.
Star accompanies Jake on his rounds, though their sales goals are continually sidelined by a fierce, animalistic passion that regularly breaks the movie's surface. Their al fresco trysts occur far from the watchful glare of the group's ruthless young leader, Krystal (a splendidly wicked Riley Keough), who makes her disdain for Star instantly clear. She also asserts her own professional and carnal dominance over her top seller, Jake, much like a pimp salivating over a prize prostitute.
Selling oneself turns out to be an inevitable function of this movie's severely depressed economy, and there are some who will no doubt accuse Arnold of similarly enabling her characters' exploitation. When "American Honey" made its polarizing debut earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won a third-place jury prize), some critics took the director to task for crossing the Atlantic and presuming to lecture Americans about the depths of poverty and hopelessness in their own backyard. Perhaps some of them were trying to see through the latest gritty social-realist illusion from a filmmaker whose enormous passion for her subject has sometimes led her into a posture of flailing artistic overreach.
In both "Fish Tank" and her little-seen, boldly revisionist adaptation of "Wuthering Heights," the director's rough-hewn style seemed almost precocious in its primitivism; all that raw austerity could feel like a bit of a put-on. But "American Honey," in part because of its invigorating change of scenery, turns out to be Arnold's breakthrough. The patchy plotting and narrative longueurs will almost certainly test your patience over the better part of three hours, and they're meant to. Occasional stretches of tedium, we come to understand, are an indelible part of the journey.
It's been a while since a film so powerfully evoked the thrilling possibilities and wasted pleasures of the open road — the endless nights spent in crummy motel rooms and empty parking lots, where young people drink, dance, fight and fornicate their way to oblivion. Star looks on but mostly keeps her distance, and "American Honey," long and winding though it is, never becomes an ensemble piece. Even when Lady Antebellum's title tune inspires a group sing-along, the beauty of the moment only serves to throw the characters' piercing isolation into high relief.
What lies ahead for these kids? Where will they go? How will they live? While it supplies no easy answers, the wonder of "American Honey" is that for all Star's wild-child naiveté, you can sense her emerging from the experience with an ever stronger understanding of herself and her own worth. It's clear early on that she isn't much of a salesperson. Whether she's pushing back against a customer's probing questions, or hopping into a convertible with three white-clad Texan guys who have more than magazines in mind, Star never feels more thrillingly alive than when she's throwing caution to the wind. In these moments, her defiant, uncompromising honesty feels entirely of a piece with the movie's own.
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens
Running time: 2 hours, 42 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, Los Angeles