Not long into “American Honey,” Andrea Arnold’s astonishingly beautiful movie, you start to notice the insects. A bumblebee has a close brush with death. Moths and butterflies flit about the edge of the frame.
A lush streak of animal symbolism has coursed through Arnold’s 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 magnetized by the camera, as though drawn to the inner flame of the Oklahoma teenager who is the film’s protagonist.
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 hardscrabble life of neglect and abuse that no one would call alluring. But as played with startling self-assurance by Sasha Lane, she also possesses the sort of incandescence that takes the camera hostage and never relinquishes it.
Star’s back story is left sketchy. Arnold gives us a few images of her 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.
With its jagged rhythms, thistle-rough textures and dreamy 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 a generational snapshot and a deconstruction of the romance of the open road, not to mention an actual romance. An early scene at a Kmart finds Star locking eyes with a charismatic young sleaze named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), their attraction sealed by a well-timed blast of Rihanna.
The role is a tour de force for LaBeouf, who has never had a role so shrewdly tailored to his off-screen exploits or his 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.
Star accompanies Jake on his rounds, although their sales goals are continually sidelined by a fierce passion that regularly breaks the movie’s surface. Their trysts occur far from the watchful glare of the group’s ruthless leader, Krystal (Riley Keough), who makes her disdain for Star instantly clear.
It’s been a while since a film so powerfully evoked the thrilling possibilities and wasted pleasures of the open road.
What lies ahead for these kids? The wonder of “American Honey” is that for all Star’s wild-child naivete, you can sense her emerging from the experience with a stronger understanding of herself and her 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.
Rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, drug/alcohol abuse — all involving teens. 2:42. Kentucky.