Images via A24
In early 2012, writer-director Andrea Arnold embarked on an ongoing adventure. After realizing that her critically acclaimed films Wuthering Heights (2011), Fish Tank (2009), and Red Road (2006) were taking her to festivals across the world but she was rarely spending quality time in her various destinations, the British director decided to rent a car and go exploring America. For the next three years, she got to know the country firsthand during several road trips. That experience helped enrich American Honey, her fourth film (and the first shot in the U.S.), which is inspired by both a 2007 New York Times feature article and her own time spent traveling with crews that go door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions.
Shot last summer over the span of seven weeks, Arnold and a dedicated team set forth across several Midwestern states in passenger vans, capturing the story of Star (played by intriguing newcomer Sasha Lane in her first role), a young woman with a troubled home life who decides to join the “mag crew” after flirting with an outgoing recruiter named Jake (Shia LaBeouf) during a chance encounter. Their budding relationship is the driving force in American Honey, but at nearly three hours long—and with no real rush to get to where it’s going—there is considerable time to ponder the observations the film makes, whether it’s the hypocrisy of those who claim to be devoutly religious but do little in real life to help their fellow man, or the distinct gap between rich and poor as demonstrated by the crew’s stops at different neighborhoods.
While some might view the crew solely as misfits from the margins of society who spend their down time rapping along to their favorite money-makin’ anthems and ritualistically partying into the next morning, Arnold clearly sees them as a close-knit clan doing the best they can to survive in an exploitative job. (The bottom earners having to fight each other as a form of punishment/entertainment.) She puts you up-close right there in the van with them and makes you not only a part of their family but also a part of the film.
“You were with me,” says Lane. “You were breathing with me. You’re feeling my emotions because you’re looking at everything through me. So, I think that was why [Arnold] shot [the film] with a very intimate feel.”
A year after shooting American Honey, Lane and Arnold are at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, a far cry from the dingy roadside motels they stayed at while filming. It’s the last Friday of the summer, plus the weather is brilliant, which greatly helps to move along this press day spent answering the same questions for the millionth time. While sitting on the terrace floor, they good-naturedly go over again how Lane, who hails from Texas, was discovered on a Florida beach during Spring Break. When Lane is quizzed about her sex scenes with co-star LaBeouf, Arnold steps in a bit defensively, but perhaps understandably so, considering the age of salacious gossip we live in.
“I always feel weird talking about sex scenes,” says Arnold. “Because it’s almost like real life. You wouldn’t necessarily go around telling the world about what you were doing with your partner two nights ago, so I always feel discussing it is a bit strange.”
If Arnold is being protective of Lane it’s easy to see why. The young woman, who just turned 21 on Sept. 29, has the inherent quality of a younger sister you automatically want to look out for. It carries over on-screen. In one particularly absorbing sequence in American Honey, Star jumps into the car of three rich, friendly (maybe too damn friendly) cowboys she doesn’t know. They end up back at one of the men’s homes, drinking mezcal by the pool. The growing sense of something bad happening is thick in the air, and we realize how much we care about Star.
After the group interview, away from the press, Arnold and Lane give each other a long hug, the type you give after a meaningful journey together. What they say to each other is not meant to be heard by anybody but themselves. To outsiders, it has the look and feel of two friends wishing each other the best on their respective future roads ahead.
Judging by her experience on American Honey, Lane is more than ready for her next adventure. “I loved that we were hoppin’ in a van, going on the road,” she says. “It wasn’t hard [for me] to just kind of go. I have this itch for freedom.”