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Sasha Lane feels the wind in her hair in American Honey.

You may not know who Andrea Arnold is, but she’s a genius. The native of Kent, England, has made films only sporadically in her homeland, but more often than not they’ve been blazing pieces of work, proudly working-class and pulsating with female hormones. She brings that sensibility to American Honey, her first movie in the United States, and she turns this 163-minute amble across the highways into a trip well worth undertaking.

Sasha Lane stars as Star, an 18-year-old mixed-race girl living in Oklahoma who gets spotted by a guy named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) as she dumpster-dives for food for herself and her two stepsiblings. Seeing that she’s pretty, he offers her a job selling overpriced magazine subscriptions door-to-door as part of his small traveling army of dead-end youngsters from all over the East and South. Since Star is living in an ant-infested hole with a father who molests her, this doesn’t sound like a terrible idea. She winds up living out of cheap motels with her fellow saleskids all over the Plains States.

Arnold has always been good with teenage girls in tough circumstances — if you haven’t seen her 2009 coming-of-age film Fish Tank, do it now. Occasionally she goes overboard with the American signifiers here, but she’s perfectly at home with the grungy atmosphere of these kids spending most of their time in their van, finding great poignancy in a late scene when the mag crew visits a Native American reservation in North Dakota and Star takes pity on a family of children whose mother is strung out on meth, much like Star’s own mother. Star frequently finds herself alone with male customers, and the specter of sexual violence is always present in these encounters without quite reaching full roar, whether they’re with three guys in cowboy hats who feed her shots of mescal or the guy who drives her to a natural gas well and asks for her help masturbating.

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Lest you think this is some sort of slog through rural poverty, Arnold cuts these with humorous interludes like when Jake tries to sell to a devout Christian housewife while her teenage daughters distract him by doing sexy dance moves in the backyard. She also conjures up scenes of great lyrical beauty, as when the kids take a pee break and find themselves staring into an awe-inspiring canyon, or when the girls sing along to the Lady Antebellum song that gives this movie its name.

More lightness comes from LaBeouf, who provides further proof that he can actually act. You don’t know where Jake is coming from initially. He has a ponytail and an eyebrow piercing but also a pocket protector and a sparkly iPhone case. He can effortlessly talk his way into well-kept suburban homes, but Star is too young to see that he’s also playing her and, more dangerously, himself. LaBeouf does much to convey the guy’s flailing for identity underneath his polished surface, and he provides a moment of pure joy early on in a K-mart, where Jake impresses Star by leading his sales force in a spontaneous dance number to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” which is playing over the store’s P.A. system.

He’s matched by Lane, a 21-year-old newcomer from Dallas who was chosen for this film in much the same way as Star is picked for her job. Arnold has worked wonders with neophyte lead actresses before, and here she finds a fiery presence, as Lane makes Star into someone alert, curious, prickly, and fiercely sexual after she starts an affair with Jake. Star becomes devoted to her fellow crew members, especially one butch girl (Heaven Knows What star Arielle Holmes) who appears to have some severe mental issues, but Lane captures the girl’s dawning realization that she needs to get out of her new life, particularly in the great scene at the very end.

Arnold and Lane’s feel for this character as she embarks on her youthful adventures makes American Honey into the movie that Spring Breakers was trying to be. Teen liberation movies usually aren’t about the black girls, which is why it’s so vital that this movie gives us the image of one black girl standing up in a moving convertible and shouting happily while her dreadlocks blow in the wind. We didn’t know we needed that image, but we did.

[box_info]American Honey
Starring Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold. Rated R. Now playing in Dallas.[/box_info]

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