Director Andrea Arnold has said that mystery is a rare and valuable commodity in a film. It is important to Arnold that the audience engages with the story and draws its own conclusions. Her latest project, American Honey, is a victory in this sense—undeniably enigmatic.

American Honey is a meandering, on-the-road story. Eighteen-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) is living in a poor and abusive home in Middle America when she runs across the charismatic Jake (Shia Labeouf) in a parking lot. He’s stopped here with his mag crew—an itinerant group of young people who sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Jake easily convinces Star to join them, with her membership subject to the final authority of the crew’s intimidating manager, Krystal (Riley Keough). Soon, Star is a comfortable member of the hodgepodge, hormonal family. A supremely millennial romance between herself and Jake takes erratic form, ever-threatened by Krystal’s psychological dominance over Jake.

While a plot adrift is still perfectly capable of captivating—and American Honey does have myriad compelling moments—there’s something to be said for setting up solid stakes. The role of popular music in American Honey is overwrought, and it’s heavily depended upon to carry the action forward. The film would not have suffered from cutting a few of the countless singing-in-the-van scenes. More critically, American Honey expects the zeitgeisty millennial viewer to invest, no questions asked, in the fraught and loose central romance between Star and Jake. Any justification for caring about these two is pure self-projection (call it mystery, if you will). There’s no real reason to root for or against their relationship, or even for each character. They are hazy forms, giant grey areas. They are aimless as seen now, and their stated dreams—a secluded cabin, for instance—are wisps of wind. They are also, with the exception of a few orienting scenes for Star at the beginning of the film, only ever in the middle of this story.

Nevertheless, American Honey is realist, gorgeous and original. But it is less memorable, and less thought-provoking than it might have been if imbued with more focus and and a dose of traditional plot structure. Arnold’s 2009 film, Fish Tank—starring Katie Jarvis, scouted off the street, and Michael Fassbender—achieves a more emotionally compelling, if less artistically ambitious, effect. It’s worth making the case that Fish Tank is a “better” film for this reason.

The cast of American Honey is a mix of actors and non-actors. Labeouf embodies Jake, vulnerable and volatile. Keough renders Krystal, a character who might easily have become “the bitch,” with tender subtlety. Lane, a non-actor cast from a beach during spring break, portrays Star with vibrant energy. Most of the rest of the mag crew are likewise non-actors, scouted in places like the Walmart parking lot.

The implosion of the real-world cast and the created-world in American Honey translates to a remarkable love of subject. The film takes care with each of its characters; their quirks are unmasked, their mannerisms worshipped. The movie’s epic runtime, its inconclusive ending and its rambling lead-up seem to convey Arnold’s deep reluctance to part from these young people. As a result, she struggles to formulate her goodbye.

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