'American Honey' Is An Empathetic, Deeply Moving Masterpiece [Fantastic Fest Review]

The United States of America is a nation of many nations. Within this vast expanse, you carve out your own destiny, define your existence, and struggle against the walls, both real and imagined, that box you in. You choose to look past those whose nation is so different from your own, your gaze deliberately passing through a individual, a fellow human being, whose circumstances are so alien to your own. Or maybe you wonder why that person won't look you in the eye, why they're looking at you without looking at you, and why their polite smile is so empty. It's easy to get lost in America.

Andrea Arnold's American Honey is a machine powered by empathy, 163-minute odyssey through the forgotten and overlooked ranks of humanity who call America's heartland their home. This is a road trip through flyover country, a cinematic opportunity to meet the gaze of those so many have forgotten or dismissed. It is a masterpiece and one of the best movies of 2016.

We first meet Star (Sasha Lane) as she rescues an expired chicken from a dumpster. Arnold's camera, so active and yet so intimate, allows us to see this from her perspective. It's easy to be in the car on the nearby road, to watch with disgust. But it's one thing to see Star's determination in close-up, her desperation, and even her bravery. What looks undignified to those passing by can't help but feel courageous with a tweak in perspective – it's only demeaning if you're willing to overlook it as an act of survival, if you're willing to forget about the two young children standing by who are counting on their older sister to keep them fed.

The power of perspective fuels every frame of American Honey. Soon enough, Star abandons her miserable existence, leaving behind everything she has ever known, to join a roving band of young men and women who eke out of a living selling magazine subscriptions. Each of them has a story and each of them has a collection of additional stories that they break out when it's time to sell. They're all broken, and they've been broken long enough to know that anyone who can spare forty bucks on a fishing magazine is someone whose eyes will glaze over at the sight of white trash kids peddling door-to-door. It's easy to see why this unit is so tight-knit, why the time spent in cheap hotel rooms and singing songs on the flat highways between cities has transformed this "mag crew" into a surrogate family. In each other, they have found the only people who will look them in the face without pity, without an agenda.

American Honey doesn't apologize for these kids and it never asks to forgive their often uncomfortable and illegal decisions. It only asks for you to give them the time of day, to understand their world. Their world is one of K-Marts and off-brand cola, of drug abuse and violence, where a book of stickers is a grand gesture and Oklahoma City is an astonishing metropolis. There's a documentarian's eye in Arnold's work, with her 4:3 frame stripping the romance out of each image and her screenplay, free of traditional plot, containing the chaotic energy of reality.

It's a testament to the more recognizable faces, like Shia Le Beouf and Riley Keough, that they blend in with this natural, unvarnished world and the ensemble of mostly unknown actors. Le Beouf in particular is quite good, playing the crew's top salesman as charismatic and brittle in equal measure. However, it is Sasha Lane who dominates American Honey with a performance so raw and real that it's no wonder that she was an unknown who literally discovered on a beach by Arnold and had never acted before. There's nothing trained or plastic in this performance, which feels like it is naturally erupting out of her. Maybe a trained actor couldn't have played Star – her irrational decisions, her surprising warmth, and her poor choices run the risk of feeling inconsistent or even random. But with Lane, so natural and real, they feel more like the actions of a real person. We all do dumb shit. We all have our moments of grace.

American Honey is ultimately a road movie, following the crew from town-to-town as they engage in episodic misadventures that are painful and joyful and everything in-between. Connections are built. Bridges are burned. Strangers reveal themselves to be not what anyone expected. Strangers reveal themselves to be what everyone assumed all along. There are moments of casual cruelty and unexpected kindness. Each pit-stop brings its own miseries and excitements. Romances are kindled and destroyed while dreams are dashed and considered. American Honey offers no easy answers and it has no interest in wrapping itself up in a tidy package. No one is going to wave a wand and strip these kids of their troubles. But they're also strong enough to persevere, because every misery is accompanied by hope. These kids may be lost without a map, but at least they're on the road.

Andrea Arnold pulls no punches and her cast doesn't invite you like them. But American Honey isn't about liking its characters or hating them – it's about empathizing with them. It's about slowing down to speak with the people you would drive by without thinking twice. It's about asking you to drive a mile in a stranger's shoes and try to sell some magazines nobody wants. It's a movie as vast and frustrating and beautiful and tragic as America itself.

/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10