'American Honey' is a wild, original coming-of-age tale

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

You might not know it from the surface, but 2016 has been an amazing year for film if you know where to look. And where to look has not been the major Hollywood releases.

"American Honey" joins a growing list of boldly original movies released this year. While you can see its influences, "Honey" is also wildly fresh in unexpected ways.

Star (Sasha Lane) is a Midwestern teenager on the fringe of an America we don't often see on film. When we meet her, she's dumpster diving with her two young siblings. While hitchhiking home, a van full of wild strangers catches her eye.

She follows them into a grocery store where she meets the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who abruptly offers her a job: "What are you doing today? Want to go to Kansas City?"

A depressing glimpse of Star's home life - deep poverty and apparent molestation from her father - show she's got little to lose. She shows up the next morning to join a merry band of Lost Boys and Girls on a road trip through the Midwest.

The group travels around selling magazine subscriptions, under the strict management of Krystal (Riley Keough), who is in a state of constant hustle. On the road, they bond over blunts, 40s and trap music. Jake is Krystal's best salesman, so he's paired with Star, who soon develops a crush.

With "American Honey," writer-director Andrea Arnold makes some choices so bold, they look almost obnoxious on paper. The entire film is shot in a nearly square ratio seldom seen on movie screens. Its plot wanders episodically in ways that can be hard to latch on to. It runs nearly two hours and 45 minutes long.

That last one was a red flag for someone who is generally a proponent of tight pacing and efficient running times. To my own surprise, I found the world Arnold had created so immersive I would hardly recommend she cut a scene.

Watching young people make decisions that would make parents cringe - were there any around in their lives - is somewhat reminiscent of Larry Clark's "Kids." Meanwhile, the door-to-door sales side evoked the superb 1968 documentary "Salesman." How's that for juxtaposition?

I admit that a rat-tailed Shia LaBeouf let off the chain acting-wise sounds abrasive, but he's great here. The obvious breakout is Lane, a true natural in a role that's heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting.

"Honey" is definitely not for everyone, but it continues an amazing year for A24 Films, which now has four movies ("The Witch," "The Lobster," "Swiss Army Man" and "American Honey") among my picks for the year's best.

"American Honey"

Opens Friday

4 stars out of 4