"American Honey" opens with 18-year-old Star rummaging for food in a supermarket dumpster in Muskogee, Okla. She is taking care of her younger half-siblings because her mother can't be bothered and her mother's boyfriend, drunk or drugged, is more interested in molesting Star than helping out around the house.
Star catches sight of a van full of young people, especially a charismatic young man named Jake, who invites her to join them. She does so, abandoning her unsatisfying life with no regrets.
The film follows her as she learns that she has joined a team of door-to-door magazine salespeople who move from town to town. They stay in cheap hotels by night and swill liquor and smoke marijuana pretty much all day long. Their craven manager constantly exhorts them to "Make money!" by using hard-luck stories to convince homeowners to buy magazines they never knew they wanted. Unproductive sellers are threatened with beatings at the end of each week.
Effectively the group functions as a tribe or a family. Like Star, the other members seem to have joined and stayed because this fairly dismal life looked better than what they had before. Star and Jake bounce back and forth between intimacy and jealousy.
There is no real plot. There are several themes -- poverty, children raised by no-hope parents, affection for animals -- and of course the obligatory swipe at a woman who identifies herself as a Christian but whose comfortable existence hasn't stopped her tween daughter from dressing and acting like a tramp.
The implication is that this is the new normal for many young Americans. It's interesting that the film was put together by a highly regarded young British director, Andrea Arnold. The idea, I believe, is that an outsider sees our problems with new eyes.
We know there are children growing up in chaotic family situations now, of course, but we do not want our own relatives to be drawn into these matters. And we sure don't know how to make things better.
"American Honey" was made in a real-time documentary style. Major cast members are actual actors, and good ones, but the other young people in the sales group are amateurs who were cast because they looked right for their parts. All we learn about them as characters are that one of the boys whips out his penis frequently and that a sad-eyed girl named Pagan is obsessed with Darth Vader.
In an interview, the filmmaker said she put the group in a van and hit the road. Cast and crew traveled 12,000 miles in the course of filming. Arnold said she liked the authenticity of the people she met in Muskogee, where the story begins, and that she actually downplayed the amount of poverty she observed when readying the final cut.
It's a good, well-made film, but many scenes could be cut without damaging the impact. At almost three hours, "American Honey" is way too long.
--The idea for the movie came from a grim 2007 New York Times article about "mag crews" of young people recruited to sell magazines door-to-door. I don't know if there are such crews now, but the concept was employed to good effect -- rootless young people traveling the country to sell magazines to people who actually had homes and, at least generally, more conventional lives.
--"American Honey" takes its name from a Lady Antebellum song whose lyrics are sweet and nostalgic. This movie is neither.