Greetings again from the darkness. Movies are often classified according to genre: comedy, thriller, romance, drama, etc. Writer/director Andrea Arnold (Wuthering Heights, 2011) pays little attention to such labels, and seems to take immense pleasure in spotlighting a segment of society that rarely gets the silver screen treatment. Rather than bring us yet another lawyer, cop, teacher or writer, Ms. Arnold demands we pay attention to a group of misfits.
Our introduction to Star (Sasha Lane) comes from inside a dumpster as she and her young siblings are diving for food behind a grocery store, and afterwards hitchhiking for a ride back home. A chance parking lot meeting with an energetic young man named Jake (Shia LeBeouf) leads Star to take some drastic actions … including joining Jake and his traveling troupe of free-spirited cohorts as they drive around the country selling magazine subscriptions and staying in cheap hotels. In between fabricated sales pitches, there is much alcohol, drugs, hip hop, and sex.
Jake is the top salesperson, but it’s Krystal (Riley Keough) who supervises the group with threats, punishment and insults. She understands this is a captive audience with few options … even asking Star “Will anyone miss you?” That question is at the core of what keeps this group together. The van gang is the only community to which they belong – the closest thing to family they have. The handbook’s stated purpose may be to “make money”, but fundamentally, these folks just want to fit in somewhere.
Director Arnold takes a quasi-documentary approach (similar to last year’s Tangerine) that delivers a realistic feel to a world most of us have little knowledge of. Seeing these scam artists bounce through suburbs and rural areas, willing to take advantage of most anyone along the way, generates both empathy and disgust. By design, it’s Star with whom we most relate. She clearly has a conscience, but is as naïve to the world as she is sensitive to her own desires. A simple question (used twice) is a kick in the gut to viewers, and the dreams and hopes of these misfits are most puzzling of all.
The use of music is exceptionally well done, leaning heavily on hip-hop and Rihanna (twice). The titular Lady Antebellum song has its moment, as does Darth Vader philosophy and a few flying creatures. Though the run time is entirely too long for an indie that really doesn’t follow a traditional narrative, we don’t mind too much since we are watching the birth of a new star. Sasha Lane makes an incredible debut, and though the director “discovered” her on spring break in Florida, the natural talent here runs deep. I’m not sure of the market for this film, but it seems obvious Ms. Lane has a much brighter future than her character – or any of the others riding along in the van.