Andrea Arnold’s previous films have been so bone-deep British – whether it’s people enduring domestic misery on council estates in Red Road and Fish Tank, or women in corsets, rain-sodden and weeping through the countryside in Wuthering Heights – that finding her in dusty Midwest America is initially akin to finding Michael Bay simpering around a Jane Austen romance. It just seems wrong. Yet this new setting has given Arnold a thrilling energy and, in strange ways, an uncharacteristic optimism.
Sasha Lane plays Star, a girl we initially meet rifling through a bin, a pretty solid metaphor for her life. She’s just part of the pile. She looks after two children, to whom she may or may not be related, and is casually abused at home. A glint of freedom comes when she sees a group of near-feral teens dancing in a supermarket to Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’. One of them, Jake (Shia LaBeouf, his cracked hippy vibe perfectly matched to the character), invites her to cross the country with them, selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door to get by. It sounds, frankly, an uninviting life, but to Star it’s a whole new world.
Nothing about Star’s experience is particularly exciting, objectively, but Arnold paints it as a series of small epiphanies. Sitting in the car with a group of new friends, singing a song; skipping off for lunch with a group of older, creepy, men; starting a romance with Jake that can only be doomed. Star sucks up experience, good and bad, absorbing everything life has. There may not be huge amounts going on in terms of actual plot, but Arnold showing the forming of a person, exploding with all the force of a planet, is in its own way epic. Lane’s performance is of the sort that only really comes from first-time actors (Arnold spotted her on a beach), all her emotions prickling right on the surface. As she stands in the final shot, waste deep in water and looking out to everything, Lane and Arnold have made Sasha a completely different person. In two-hours-and-40-minutes, they have formed a whole life.