In American Honey, her 162-minute fourth feature, the British director Andrea Arnold sets an infatuation-at-first-sight encounter to Rihanna's "We Found Love," a conversation about dreams to Bruce Springsteen singing "Dream Baby Dream," and a moment of camaraderie among itinerant youngsters traveling across the American heartland to -- yes -- Lady Antebellum's "American Honey."
These scenes are not the movie's problem. In fact, they're among its most cathartic, as they're daringly obvious and openhearted, even ridiculous, in their pursuit of an emotion or idea. They generate the precious few bursts of seeming spontaneity: the flirty stuck-out tongue eighteen-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) throws at Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a Rihanna-blasting department store; the sweet little wink-back QT (Veronica Ezell, one of the non-actors Arnold enlisted to fill out the dozen-strong ensemble) sends to Star over the Lady Antebellum chorus.
The problem is that this meandering movie about Star's integration into life with a crew of magazine sellers has too many sequences where the point is either unclear or facile. Cases of the former usually involve Arnold inserting random shots of bugs and plants and horses and dogs; in the latter, she resorts to an even more dispiriting strategy: shock tactics. Want to turn a nothing scene in a motel room into something sexy and controversial? Show Riley Keough, the lead of Starz' The Girlfriend Experience, getting lotioned up by LaBeouf while wearing a Confederate-flag bikini.
Arnold has a history of directing nonprofessionals, and here, as with Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (2011), the director gets truly fiery work out of an unknown -- the dreadlocked Lane was a college freshman on spring break when Arnold discovered her.