Something unexpected, and miraculous, happens every time Shia LaBeouf shows up on screen in American Honey. The movie becomes more electric. More dangerous. It happens immediately, as Shia -- riding in the passenger seat of a van that will become very familiar to audiences -- makes eye contact with equally magnetic leading lady Sasha Lane, and an actual spark is felt. I picked up on LaBeouf's noticeable affect on American Honey because Andrea Arnold's urgent, evocative new drama loses a sliver of that intensity every time the one-time Transformers star is away from the action... and I spent that time waiting patiently for him to return.
During those moments, American Honey helped me realize that it's time to take Shia LaBeouf seriously as an actor again.
Mainly because LaBeouf is taking himself seriously as an actor, as well. On screen, his choices have been bold and risky. That's the only way to describe the Nymphomaniac films, a two-part Lars Von Trier collaboration exploring the painful needs of sex addicts. He also held his own opposite Brad Pitt and Jon Bernthal in the tank drama Fury, and played one leg of a criminal family with Tom Hardy and Jessica Chastain in Lawless. This isn't an Even Stevens kid cashing checks with a nothing role in the latest Transformers sequel. It's a performer pushing his personal boundaries, and largely succeeding. American Honey screened as part of the programming at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
If we tend to doubt Shia LaBeouf's dedication to his craft, it's usually because of his off-screen antics. The movie marathon where he invited the public to screen all of his previous films. The 24 hours he spent in an elevator. His red carpet shenanigans. Shia LaBeouf's entertaining to some, annoying to others. But as an actor, he's growing and changing, stretching and challenging himself, and American Honey is a welcome reminder of LaBeouf's raw talent -- when he chooses to use it.
In Honey, LaBeouf plays Jake, the trusted right hand man of skuzzy entrepreneur Krystal (Riley Keough, herself a human rattlesnake in this nasty role). The duo shepherd a team of loose and bawdy twentysomethings, employing them as door-to-door salespeople running a magazine scam in posh Midwest neighborhoods. But LaBeouf is all alpha dog in this scenario, wrestling with the guys and flirting with the girls, preying on new recruit Star (Sasha Lane) the way a starving lion tracks a beautiful gazelle en route to the watering hole.
LaBeouf gives a fantastic performance in this unpredictable, live-wire role. Which, in turn, reminded me of that compelling Variety interview with the 30-year-old, where he puts his past to rest -- essentially -- and focused on the seriousness of his future. He's sober. He's committed. And if American Honey is any indication, he's ready to change his image in this industry, and become a potential force to be reckoned with.