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'American Honey' is sordid, sweet

There is nothing sweet about the first thing we see onscreen in Andrea Arnold's road movie "American Honey:" two little kids and an older teen aimlessly rummaging through a dumpster for food or things they can sell. They find what might have been a treasure--a frozen turkey not entirely defrosted with cellophane wrapping intact.

A conventional movie would leave it at that, a point about rootless American poverty having been made. Not in this film. Arnold--a Brit making her first American movie--picks at the image of the littlest of the kids, a boy, as he pierces the bird's cellophane wrapper, while the oldest hitch hikes for the three of them. Her name is Star, a Mack Truck irony in this film. The little boy is rendering their poultry find inedible and impossible to sell,too.

The scene is not disposed of quickly. But then neither is this remarkable and unusual movie. It's 162 minutes long. Everything feels like a documentary but very little of it is.

Nearby all of them is a good-looking young guy named Jake, who immediately captures Star's hormonal attentions. "Wanna go to Kansas City" Jake asks. They're in Oklahoma at the time. It looks like a casual, off-the-wall roadside pickup. It's not.

Jake is using his appeal to do some business. Picking up rootless teens on the road, we soon learn, is what he does. Sleeping with the girls, too. That's because he's a recruiter for a crew of itinerant teens who ride through the American Midwest selling magazines door-to-door. They're fast-talking scam artists. Magazines are what they're ostensibly selling but they're also getting names and addresses of suckers for others to use as they see fit.

Star decides yeah. Jake and the road beat dumpster diving. So she gets rid of the little kids. The movie never says, but we assume they're her young siblings. She tells the little ones' mother with no notice at all that she's going on the road. Mom, at the time, is doing a line dance at a sleazy-looking local roadhouse. She's not happy about losing her babysitter with such short notice. She's being saddled with little kids again.

Family ties don't run deep here. So off go Star and the magazine crew to sell their magazines in Kansas City.

The life of the crew on the road is the movie. The door-to-door pitches, the romance and sex of Star and Jake, the whole rag-tag bunch who look like roadside recruits for a simple reason: most of them were. Even Sasha Lane, who plays Star and really is the star of the film, was found by Arnold while she was sunbathing during spring break. This is her first film and her rawness and natural beauty are electrifying. Nothing about her seems like an ambitious Angeleno dreaming of a movie career.

The movie is a startling bit of movie naturalism --a pseudo-verite look at an American youthful subculture of rootlessness and alienation on the road. It's Kerouac without intellectual delusions.

This is just a girl who got an instant crush on a guy by the side of the road and went off with him to Kansas City. This is just a young guy recruiting whatever young people he can so he can train of crew of itinerant magazine peddlers lead by a tough, cynical and beautiful boss named Crystal, who walks around in a bra plastered with flag symbols. She's played by Riley Keough, the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and granddaughter of Elvis Presley. She was also the star of Stephen Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" on cable TV.

If that little bit of casting doesn't give you a tiny shudder of recognition, nothing will.

Most of this cast was recruited by Arnold from pockets of non-professionals she found while prowling off-road America. That doesn't mean that everyone you see is non-pro. Jake is played by Shia LaBeouf, a problem child actor who's been known to drive old pros (Alec Baldwin, for one) nuts.

One of Star's sudden pick-ups on the road is played by actor Will Patton, whose shades are so big and whose lines are so few and far between that you can't be completely sure it's him. It is indeed, though.

Star is flirting with danger and doesn't care. She's also learning a roadside ethic of doing almost anything for quick money. And for a beautiful young woman, you can imagine where that leads (and where it might lead if this movie imagined a few more months of her life.)

But, for all its excess, this is an arresting piece of work --beautifully photographed, freshly conceived and moving.

It's full of music besides the title song by Lady Antebellum. And sparkly cell phones. And a lot of the brick-a-brac of youth culture in America.

It gets to you. It's too long but the final scene is a quiet stunner. In its final minute, Arnold ends her film by proving to you in a virtuosic way just how you've come to care about her heroine Star.


"American Honey"

3 stars (out of four)

Starring: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough and Will Patton

Director: Andrea Arnold

Running time: 163 minutes

Rating: R for language, nudity and sex

The lowdown: An aimless girl joins a band of teens selling door to door in the Midwest.

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