What’s your dream, Star asks her on-off boyfriend Jake. He doesn’t quite follow the question. “Dreams?” he replies. “Like future dreams?”

Life is in the moment for drifters like Star, who has fled an abusive domestic situation, and Jake, the chief recruiter for a “mag crew” – a band of youngsters who sell magazine subscriptions across America. They move from one town to the next, wheedling cash out of vastly wealthier Americans. They crash in a series of motels, their labours boosted by drugs and alcohol.

Star (Sasha Lane) feels at home with this rag-tag group, which is headed by Krystal (Riley Keough). Star’s feelings for Jake (Shia LaBeouf), sealed in their very first encounter, motivate her during a free-wheeling journey of discovery.

British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) has been adapted by her from a New York Times article. Arnold’s fourth feature, which is available on Netflix, is in the vein of her debut Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009). These films examine the fragility of working-class existence with both empathy and romance.

Arnold is a sensualist too, creating immersive experiences through hand-held camerawork, natural lighting and the brittle honesty of mostly unprofessional actors. American Honey has warm sunlight, an intimate shooting style and a quality of immediacy running through the scenes of the crew living from one day to the next. The film throbs with energy, sensuality and tenderness for young Americans leading precarious lives with defiant dignity.

The sunny optimism of the magazine hawkers cannot hide the despair that lurks at the edges. The fruits of free-market capitalism are all around them, ripe for the picking but always out of reach. The threat of violence or sexual assault is never far away.

The title is inspired by a song of the same name by the country music band Lady A. American Honey is equally about the flip side of the American Dream. Krystal is as hard-nosed as the average business owner, frequently reminding her employers that there are no free lunches in the world’s biggest economy.

Sasha Lane, in her first-ever acting role, leads a terrific group of mostly first-time actors. Lane has since been in a bunch of other projects, but none of them matches Star’s raw power and aching vulnerability. Shia LaBeouf too is in career-best mode as Jake, whose feelings for Star are complicated by his relationship with Krystal.

American Honey (2016).