If Larry Clark and Terrence Malick collaborated on a film, the result might be something like “American Honey,” a sprawling epic about the squalid and precarious confederacy of a group of millennial-age castoffs road-tripping across America. They sell magazines door-to-door for a living, in the age of digital media, no less.
The irony isn’t lost on the film, or its subjects. These vagabond youth, packed in a white van, realize the absurdity of their subsistence-level industry, a peripatetic effort to get people to buy periodicals. But, on the other hand, it keeps them in gas and weed, so why not?
The leader of this raggedy bunch is a stern, twangy voiced 20-something named Krystal (Riley Keough). A manipulative-beyond-her-years businesswoman, Krystal has the attitude of a young woman who’s been taking care of herself for longer than might be completely legal. She usually can be found dressing someone down, or dressed up in a bikini bearing the Stars and Bars, or both.
Krystal’s No. 1 salesman and recruiter is Jake (Shia LaBeouf), whose greatest attribute, to the uninformed eye, is the longest, most amazing rat-tail in the history of the world. No joke: It’s even braided.
To young women with questionable backgrounds and dim prospects, Jake and his lock (singular) seem to have boundless appeal. Whimsical, carefree and charming, he’s sort of a Kmart Dionysus, and in such a parking lot does he seduce and lure Star (Sasha Lane), inviting the 18-year-old into Krystal’s crew with promises of fortune, the mystery of the road and even a possible romance. At the very least he’ll rescue her from dumpster diving.
Star is instantly smitten, and her odyssey begins, leading us into more than two hours of close contact with quite an interesting segment of society.
Krystal’s crew sports types who missed their 15 minutes in the era of “Cops” and “Jerry Springer.” Each has an idiosyncrasy or two -- Corey (McCaul Lombardi), for example, loves to whip out his penis in public. But for the most part they’re a band of simple and likeminded brothers and sisters, who live by the credo of one of their favorite rap songs: Life’s highest pursuits are money and weed, in no particular order.
What makes “American Honey” particularly fascinating, a trait that would come as a surprise to many filmmakers, is that it has no agenda. It takes no side, has no hero or villain. It doesn’t judge these people, or place its protagonists above them. In fact, Star has a hard time holding her own. Her sense of wonder and generosity gets in the way of earning, the group’s low standard of success. There are no easy answers here, not for us or Star.
There is, however, a sense of wonderment, something lost on many, more formulaic, teen dramas. Being 18 and free and on the road seems wonderful in this point of view, unencumbered as Star is from possessions, both physical and psychic. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. The world and time seems open and infinite. The past is unencumbered by any regret or misdeed.
The film’s exuberance floats on a wonderful soundtrack that ranges from down-and-dirty hip-hop to dream pop and Top 40. Director Andrea Arnold, who showed her affinity for youth with 2009’s “Fish Tank,” imbues this world with a near-documentary realism, one that extends even to the music. When the van breaks out into a spontaneous sing-a-long of Lady Antebellum -- hardly a subversive musical act -- the moment feels authentic and moving.
If there’s a downside to Arnold’s technique, favoring realism over plot can feel occasionally repetitive. The kids lack direction, and sometimes the film seems lost as well. It does grasp for revelations even if it lacks conclusions, however. Star displays growth as a character. So does Jake, even if both of them remain somewhat of a mystery to us and to each other. They behave like real people. We never can quite fathom what they’re thinking or what they might do next.
For all its meandering and minor flaws, however, “American Honey” builds a solid story around Star and Jake, one that sticks with the viewer long after the music fades and the credits roll. Pity or scorn is the way one might look at these two and their companions in everyday life, maybe if someone like them knocked on the door. But the film gives them a humanity and sympathy that’s difficult to deny or forget. (R) 163 min. 5 STARS