Teenager Star (Sasha Lane) leaves home to travel around the US with a group of hard-partying young salespeople led by Krystal (Riley Keough) and Jake (Shia LaBeouf), but must earn her place in the crew.
Director Andrea Arnold is now cinema’s foremost chronicler of youthful passion. Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights and this new road movie focus on characters on the brink of adulthood, throwing themselves headlong after love and life. They appear heedless, but the common thread between Arnold’s heroines is they’re already familiar with life’s cruelties, and risk everything to find a place of safety.
Semi-improvised on a route across the Midwest, a young woman called Star (newcomer Lane) leaves an abusive home where she relies on dumpster-diving to feed the children in her care. Sparks fly with Jake (LaBeouf), chief salesman in a group of young people peddling magazine subscriptions door-to-door, and he invites her to join them. Soon she’s knocking back booze and drugs with this new gang, gazing wide-eyed at the high-rises of exotic Kansas City.
Andrea Arnold expertly establishes the deprivation she has experienced.
That last moment may seem faux-naive, but Star’s world has so obviously been circumscribed by her poverty that Lane sells it. Arnold expertly establishes the deprivation she has experienced, so her money worries provide a constant thrum of tension under the loud music and bacchanals. Underperforming salespeople may be abandoned on the road; theft is a fact of life; selling something more intimate than magazines is a looming possibility. Star is slow to trust her companions, and is clearly baffled by Jake, who draws her in one moment and pushes her away the next. She and LaBeouf are magnetic together, desperately trying to understand their overwhelming mutual attraction. It’s the best he’s been in years.
Contrasted with their grim reality, Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is bathed in sunshine and honey. Shot in a 4:3 ratio, the squared-off image keeps the focus tight on the characters amid the vast landscapes, and gives the story a flavour of Instagram appropriate to its teen protagonists. But he and Arnold also add a tactile sense to everything, a sensuous impression of skin on skin and the weight of hands touching. Star and Jake’s relationship is fiery and more than a little twisted; they come together as much in anger as affection, and boss Krystal’s (Keough) strange claim on his attentions complicates matters in ways the film never bothers to explain.
In fact plot-wise, not much happens at all over the lengthy runtime. But there’s a difference between plot and drama, and there’s drama in Star’s reckless behaviour. She’s the opposite of a natural-born saleswoman; Jake’s patter visibly irritates her; and she lashes out at potential customers. Any success stems from her lack of any instinct for self-preservation, leaping into cars with strangers to drive off to places unknown.
And even at her worst, Lane’s luminous humanity blunts any tendency older audiences might have to dismiss this group as rowdy exhibitionists with their tattoos and their hippity-hop music. Arnold’s gang may look like hipster outcasts, but they’re kids on an adventure, and their sense of joy, despite the world’s hostility, is irresistible.
It’s a little too long, but holds the attention thanks to Lane’s charisma, Ryan’s breathtaking cinematography and the dizzying power of young love.