Without question one of the best movies, for me at least, to have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May was American Honey, Andrea Arnold’s searing story of a new generation of drifting youth that won the British director the Jury Prize (essentially third place). At 162 minutes, it is an ambitious but wildly satisfying road picture centering on Star (Sasha Lane), an 18-year-old trailer-park resident who hooks up with a traveling band of young people on the backroads of America who sell magazine subscriptions door to door.

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They are a party-hearty collection of misfits, somewhat lost but perhaps looking to be found. For Star, it is an exciting and exotic new world, particularly the group’s leader and most charismatic salesman Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the crown jewel in this gang that reports to the sleazy, motel room-dwelling Krystal (Riley Keough). She is the puppeteer controlling the strings of this low-rent operation and pockets most of the profits. Jake’s growing relationship with Star gets in the way of all that and causes friction.

But the point of Arnold’s leisurely trip through the Midwest with these teens is not to concentrate heavily on plot but rather give way to a rambling, improvisational, at times poetic kaleidoscopic portrait of a faction of the United States filtered through the eyes of an English filmmaker moving from her own comfort zone to zero in on disaffected American youth. Perhaps “disaffected” isn’t even the right word, since we would have to be convinced they were affected by anything in the first place. It’s a patch quilt road movie that offers snapshots of humanity and a fascinating view of Arnold’s perspective on a generation adrift (at least in this movie).

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A24

Oddly, American Honey might have some of its roots in Arnold’s own country, by way of Charles Dickens and his Oliver Twist. That classic novel — about a young orphan boy who falls in with the crafty and persuasive Artful Dodger and a gang of pickpockets controlled by the manipulative Fagin who sends them out on the streets — seems to be a template here, with Star representing the innocent Oliver, Jake as the Artful Dodger and Krystal taking on the guise of Fagin. Much more than that, though, American Honey reminded me of the great, socially conscious movies so prevalent in the early ’70s and late ’60s, tales of memorable characters on the fringe of society. This is every bit in the league of such films as Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show and Midnight Cowboy. You could even go back further to movies like Rebel Without a Cause. Arnold might have had some influences, but American Honey is a true original with gorgeous cinematography of the Midwestern landscape by Robbie Ryan. The song-filled soundtrack is second to none, lifting the spirit of this trip enormously. Hopefully there is a double CD coming out.

In her first role, Lane — having been discovered on a beach by Arnold — is simply luminous and a startling new screen presence. She is a natural who, more important, knows how to be natural in front of a camera. LaBeouf, who like Jake has seemed to be searching, sometimes adrift in his own personal and professional life, finds his footing as a conflicted, dangerous charmer; it’s his best screen role to date. The chemistry between LaBeouf and Lane is palpable. Keough, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, certainly belongs in the family business. She’s a riveting performer here.  The rest of the cast, nearly all unknowns, is equally impressive.

Although American Honey seems to amble along from time to time, Arnold knows how to stage individual sequences with suspense and power. One scene in which a group of beer-guzzling older men fall prey to the wiles of Star is an example of the kind of riveting cinema this filmmaker effortlessly spins. There are many such moments along the way, adding to a much bigger whole in this honey of a great American movie. It’s one of the year’s best.

Producers are Thomas Benski, Lars Knudsen, Lucas Ochoa, Jay Van Hoy, Pouya Shahbazian and Alice Weinberg. A24 releases the film September 30 in select cities, following its North American premiere last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Do you plan to see American Honey? Let us know what you think.