Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 7; Sex-7/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Happy are those who consider the poor;
the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Director Andrea Arnold’s film focuses upon 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) in this intriguing road trip film. Living amidst trailer court squalor in Muskogee, Oklahoma, she dumpster-dives for food for herself and the two little half-siblings in her charge. Finding a thrown away thawed chicken, the three take it home. That night Star takes the children to their mother, engaged in line dancing at a nightspot, and dumps them. She had encountered earlier that day an eleven-passenger van full of teenagers shepherded by the irrepressible Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who had invited her to join the group. She impulsively joins the motley crew of boisterous youth who eke out a living by selling magazine subscriptions across the upper Midwest.
“Motley” only begins to describe the gang, about evenly divided by sex. They have such names as Pagan, Katness, and QT. Some of the boys go around stripped to the waist, showing off their tattoos and muscles, their scraggly hair falling around their ears. One of the bare-chested boys brazenly displays his penis, taking male pride far beyond the pale. I couldn’t help but wonder how their leader, the voluptuous Krystal (Riley Keough) could expect would-be clients to give any of these slovenly youth more than two minutes of their time. (I also wondered about the economics of the venture—how could the sale of subscriptions possibly cover the cost of fuel for a van and Krystal’s car, the motel rooms, and the food that a group of over a dozen hungry teenagers would consume? Especially when so many magazine readers have been corralled by Publishers’ Remainder and its famous prizes?)
Star relates well with her peers, but Krystal is hostile to her from the very beginning, probably seeing her as a rival for the sexual favors of Jake. Although he rides with the team during the day, she allows him to sleep with her in a private room (where she strips down to a Confederate-flag bikini) while the others share one or two rooms. That Jake and Star are slated for each other we see at the very beginning when the two communicate across the distance in a Walmart to the loud blaring of Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s hit “We Found Love.” After several steamy couplings of the pair during the trip, we will hear the song again. With its line, “We found love in a hopeless place,” the song is well matched to their story. It seems foolish that Krystal would allow Jake to be the one to show newcomer Star the ropes, but she does.
Despite her physical attraction to Jake, Star does not like Jake’s lie-strewn sales pitch made to the mother who allows them into her house. Filled with sad tales about a father in Iraq and such, it is a spiel that she undermines by her interruptions. They leave the house with no sale. Later, however, we find that her use of her sex to cement sales is not exactly a higher road, ethically speaking.
However, despite the questionable morality of their sales pitches and her participation in the wild after-work parties of her new friends, we see a core of decency in Star. She rescues a bee about to drown in a pool, and sets free another trapped in a window. She also returns to the water a stranded turtle. The others would probably have taken the less time-consuming road of killing them. Best of all, when a little girl admits her to her house to make a pitch to a parent, Star looks around the filthy rooms and sees there is no food in the refrigerator but some Mountain Dew. Both parents are passed out, the parents obviously, druggies. Star leaves and shops for a basket of groceries at the local convenience mart. She takes the food back to the home and gives them to the little girl.
The director is a Brit, but she has a keen eye for the American scene. She reminds me of the German director Wim Wenders whose 2004 film Land of Plenty beautifully captured the dark mood of America during the year following 9/11, as well as the optimistic and decent impulses in an American young person that pushed back against the anti-Muslim prejudice fueled by the attack. Sometimes an outsider can help us see ourselves in fresh ways.
The intensity of the several sex scenes almost move this film into NC-17 territory, and would have ten or twenty years ago. (This shows how greatly our culture has changed since the ratings system was first set up!) Thus, this will unfortunately not be a film church leaders will be taking their youth groups to see and discuss, even though most of the characters are teenagers. However, for adults who are not put off by graphic sex scenes, the film offers far more than sex. A girl’s quest to discover how and where she can fit in amidst the confused morality of her peers is well dramatized. The camera captures beautifully the vast expanse of the country the group traverses, from Oklahoma up to the oil fields of North Dakota where riggers can make so much money that one of them can afford to pay $1000 for a night of sex. Star would not fit in with the youth religious youth group, and yet deep within her lies a concern for the welfare of others (including creatures) taught by the prophets and by Christ.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Nov. 2016 issue of VP.