Not one blessed thing connects the film other than being road films through the western part of the United States directed by Europeans, but all during Andrea Arnold's fourth feature, American Honey, I found myself thinking that it was great that we've finally gotten a worthy successor to Paris, Texas. For even as they've got not a solitary thing in common as narratives, character studies, or even aesthetic objects (other than a shared glacial pace common to European art films), it is perhaps the case that what is most impressive and vital about both films is not their plot nor even their philosophical themes, but what they capture about the places and people within the the country, as seen through an outsider's eyes.

Early on in American Honey, for example, there's a scene set in a Big Kmart in Oklahoma (which is an extraordinarily smart choice in and of itself: the declining Kmart, as a chain, so neatly exemplifies the spirit of working class decline that the movie lightly but persistently explores. I'm not sure if the British Arnold knew that or just got lucky, but good for her either way), in which a group of itinerant young people, hearing Rihanna's "We Found Love" piped in on the tinny loudspeaker system, form an impromptu dance party in the check-out lines, which is a wonderful moment in terms of building character and mood and all that, but what's really impressive is how faultlessly Arnold and her indispensable cinematographer Robbie Ryan capture the inside of a Kmart, a space that I don't know that I've ever actually seen in a motion picture before. It's almost unpleasantly real and present: the flat white lighting that makes everything feel unpleasantly bright and also distinctly dingy and filthy, and the constant awareness of neatly organised clutter in one's peripheral vision. The realism isn't what's impressive, though, but the use to which it's put, contrasting with the dreamy, stylised behavior of the characters. And that is what American Honey does best of all: to capture some abiding truth about locations, and twisting it into a poetic form to explore how its cast relates to those locations. I don't know if "lyrical realism" is a thing, but that's what's going on here.

The film's vision of America struggling and generally falling apart centers on Star (Sasha Lane), a woman barely, if at all, out of adolescence (the first-time actor was 19 when the film was shot), of mixed ethnicity, with no family ties to speak of: when we meet her, she's caring for two children, but they prove to be her loutish redneck boyfriend's daughter and son from a previous marriage, and Star has no currently present blood relatives of her own; certainly the boyfriend is no enticement to stay in the lifeless Oklahoma town where she is currently stuck. The way out presents itself in the form of a van full of aimless twentysomethings, the same group that danced to Rihanna during our introduction to them, who travel across the middle of the country selling overpriced magazine subscriptions. The futility of doing this in the mid-2010s is lost on none of them. Star flirts a little bit with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who invites her to join the troupe, and mostly from the absence of any reason to say no, she accepts. In fairly short order, she finds out that he's already taken by Krystal (Riley Keough), the ill-tempered, autocratic leader of the magazine sellers. But it's still better than Oklahoma, and so Star drifts along with the rest of the crew, in the process running into various embodiments of American entitlement: a chilly Christian lady who visibly strains to tolerate Jake and Star's presence in her nice suburban home, a group of good ol' white boys who think it's hilarious to watch a half-dressed young women get drunk on mescal with them, and eventually the inevitable man who offers to pay her for sex.

Using that framework to make the claim that American Honey is all about class war in the United States would be a reach (though it is unambiguously and in every fiber of its being about class); one might get a little more mileage out of exploring the fact that Lane's is the only non-white face in a van where rap music sing-alongs (N-word and all) are the soundtrack of choice, but even that's not really where the movie's head or heart is at. This is a spiritual sequel to Arnold's best film, 2009's Fish Tank, which similarly focused on a young woman of absolutely no economic means and without a clear sense of where her life is going or even where her life might go, who gets enticed by a brutishly handsome man who obviously won't be terribly good for her (though insinuating that LaBeouf is "brutishly handsome" on the same level as Michael Fassbender is terribly insulting to Fassbender, or terribly generous to LaBeouf) - she and Ryan even re-use the same core visual idea underpinning that movie, which is to use the full 1.37:1 aperture to present a boxy, pinching world that hems the protagonist into a narrow, deterministic world (it's even more powerful in this film, since the aspect ratio is so frustrating when turned on Western landscape that beg and plead to be shown with epic grandiosity). Even that film's solitary major weakness, corny animal symbolism, returns for American Honey, though in a more subdued way.

American Honey is more than a transatlantic version of Fish Tank, though all that overlap rightly suggests that it has the same things in mind: this is above all things a character study about a dispossessed young person living a wholly unglamorous life that doesn't even have the compensation of tragedy to give it dramatic heft; it's a life story that virtually never gets told in any kind of art, but is lived by countless hundreds of women without hope, overlooked by uncaring elites and urban-minded activists alike. It's not a heavy film; at no point does it seem like Star is in genuine danger of anything other than a life of boredom punctuated more often by discomfort than happiness, but she's shown time and again to be resourceful, smart, and guided by a firm moral compass, and Lane's extraordinarily good performance (Arnold's strategy of hiring non-actors who catch her eye simply by behaving as themselves pays off even better here than in Fish Tank) underscores all of that while also showing how attentive, observant, and alive to the world Star is, simply by the way she watches other people. We know Star is going to be okay: perhaps not ever very happy, but she's a quick-witted survivor, and that's the attitude that reflects over the film she's in. For a movie that mostly depicts the washed-out corners of the United States and presents not one solitary character who has any real hopes for a better life than this one, American Honey is surprisingly upbeat. Part of that's the outstandingly well-chosen soundtrack, giving us a deep insight into the attitudes of the individuals in the van, while also providing a constant change in energy levels; part of it is those very same individuals, all played by amateurs themselves, and all too eager to keep moving forward and find what's next to acknowledge the fact that basically, they're all suffering.

"Upbeat" is not the same as "happy", of course. Star's life is aimless and confined, and the movie replicates that through its arrhythmic pacing and wildly indulgent 163-minute running time, which is an incredible length for a movie in which nothing in particular happens. Time itself ceases to have meaning while you're watching American Honey, a movie that begins to feel literally endless and with no apparent direction. Several points throughout feel like they could be the ending, not because they resolve things but because they'd fulfill some art movie clichรฉ or another; as it is, without a clear story or conflict (Star and Krystal get into fights, but it always peters out), the film has nothing to "resolve" and thus no way to build up to a conclusion. This is often tedious and annoying, and it works perfectly: watching the film in all its epic-length meandering puts us securely in the perspective of Star herself, who'll have to keep living this way long after we've left the movie. It is a frustrating movie about frustration, punctuated by moments of great visual grace, character insight, and thoughtfulness. Near the end, Star performs a highly symbolic act that suggests, if nothing else, that she knows that she needs to leave this life for something else, but what that something else is unclear to her, and too us. That's the genius and pain of American Honey: the depiction of a world that seems unlimited but which offers no sense at all of how to take advantage of that freedom, a perfect and sad summary of American life itself. It is a film that demands a lot, and which gives even more back.