New Film American Honey Paints a Wild Portrait of US Youth

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American Honey
© American Honey, Film Still

Chaotic, tender and highly charged – British filmmaker Andrea Arnold discusses her exhilarating new movie, which hits screens today

Back in May, a 48-year-old rapper called E-40 scored his first hit record in a decade. “Everybody got choices,” the hip-hop veteran explains on the track, Choices, leading the listener through a series of call-and-response questions that divides the world into winners and losers, saps and ‘boss playas’, corny romantic types and straight ballers. “Hater? Nope. Wanna see a player get paper? Yup./Traitor? Nope. Loyal to my soil, not a faker? Yup.”

“I mean, we do all have choices, right?” says 55-year-old British filmmaker Andrea Arnold, proudly thrusting a beaded wristband inscribed with the words ‘YUP’ and ‘NOPE’ under my nose. “One of the kids gave this to me and I’ve not taken it off since... Yup and nope. That’s the choices! I like to remind myself of that.” The kids in question are the stars of American Honey, an electrifying portrait of American youth focusing on an abused teenager, Star (Sasha Lane), who leaves home to join a fast-living crew of magazine vendors. Plotting a course through the divided landscape that is America in 2016, this cast of misfit kids devote themselves to the twin pursuits of making money and getting turnt in their new lives as ‘mag crew’ reps, all accompanied by a thumping hip-hop soundtrack including E-40’s motivational hit.

For Arnold, one such choice presented itself in the departure lounge of Salt Lake City Airport, Utah, in 2012. The Dartford-born director had come to the end of a promotional blitz for her third feature, a vivid retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, at the Sundance Film Festival, and the bus ride to the airport brought on an epiphany. “We were going very, very early in the morning and it was dark and the sun was coming up,” says Arnold. “It was the end of this big journey with Wuthering which was kind of a difficult time for me. Suddenly the sun was coming up over the mountains and I thought, ‘Wow, what am I doing coming all this way?’ You’ve taken days getting there on these planes and you don’t see any of it. I suddenly thought, ‘I can’t go home.’”

Recalling her bag from the plane’s luggage hold, Arnold made a beeline for the car-hire stand, pulling in to a local branch of Denny’s to try and make sense of her sudden change of heart. “I sat down to breakfast thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to do?’” she says. “There was this waitress dressed like a teenager that looked really great, so I asked her where I should go, and she told me about this town. I thought, ‘OK, I’m just going to go where she tells me to go, and I ended up doing this mad roadtrip where I went wherever people told me to go. It was kind of like Thelma & Louise!”

Taking a scenic route through the country’s sun-bleached southwest, Arnold was struck not only by the vastness of the landscape, but by how little of it she recognised from a youth spent obsessing over Hollywood movies. “Most of America is really different to the America we see in films, where we tend to see a lot of New York and LA,” says Arnold, who uses the crew and their clientele to present a polarised world of haves and have-nots in the film. “Actually a lot of America – and this is something that’s become very apparent during the elections – is very different to those two places.”

Through her travels, Arnold was reminded of a New York Times exposé she’d read some years ago about ‘mag crews’, a genuine phenomenon in the US describing itinerant tribes of salespeople that peddle magazine subscriptions door-to-door. The piece had given her an idea for a story where the mag crew served as a kind of dysfunctional family for its members: “Many of these kids were coming from broken families, and they were making their own on the road – a messy one, but still, maybe a better one than they had before”.

Deciding to pursue her idea (“Once I’m attached to something I’m like a pitbull attached to someone’s ankle”), Arnold returned to the US after her initial roadtrip to spend time shadowing real-life magazine crews. Learning that most were comprised of kids from all over the US, Arnold set about finding a cast of mostly non-professional actors to match. She hit the jackpot in Florida’s Panama City Beach, a spring break hotspot popular with runaways lured by the warm weather and the promise of work, where she spotted Texas native Sasha Lane dancing on the beach. But approaching the girl that would become American Honey’s lead was far from straightforward.

“A lot of that first meeting (with Sasha) was about trying to make her understand that I was legitimate, rather than some porn director who’s just come by,” says Arnold, who says she knew she’d found her girl when she asked Lane to dance on a truck’s roof in a Wal-Mart carpark with another cast member, and she obliged with gusto. “You do see guys walking around with cameras on the beach, and some of the girls told me there were people looking for girls for porn. So we met her in the hotel later on and we got to know each other a little bit. She was very natural, completely open to trying things. She’s a very soulful girl, but very free, which I really liked.”

Lane rewards Arnold’s leap of faith with a performance of immense charm and vulnerability, grounding Star in a believable innocence that’s crucial to Arnold’s empathetic vision. While American Honey doesn’t stint on the dark side of mag-crew life – this is a sink-or-swim world where sex and business mingle uneasily, and low-earning members of the group are made to fight – it’s also a film that teems with images of natural beauty, identifying primarily with its characters’ optimism and will to survive. In other words: Kids, it ain’t.

Starring opposite Lane as her mag-crew mentor and love interest is Shia Labeouf, a big-name actor that Arnold insists slotted in comfortably with the rest of the gang: “Shia arrived at this hotel we were staying in which was in Muskogee. I had originally been looking for non-actors (for Shia’s role), and I remember thinking this could be challenging for someone who’s done a lot of acting, because all these people are very real. But when I went over to see him he’d just met all the others, and he just looked like he was part of that gang. He just fitted right in. And they were not at all fussed that he was really well-known, they were treating him just like normal.”

Crucial to establishing team spirit among the group was the in-transit playlist, drawn from suggestions by the cast as well as picks from Arnold, a self-professed Juicy J fan who’s been known to confuse Uber drivers by singing along to rap tunes blaring out the car speakers. (“I was playing a lot of trap on my way here actually, it is terribly exciting,” she says.) “When I was with [the mag crews], I’d watch them constantly trying to charm these people, and I’d think how hard that must be – like, 12 hours daily of trying to persuade people to buy something from you,” says Arnold. “They’re getting rejected all the time, so when they get on the bus it’s like, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna get some music on. It was massively important to them.”

Arnold sought to recreate that atmosphere with her own fledgling mag crew, making music in the film “like a character in itself”. For example, when Star makes the life-changing decision to hop on board with the crew – again, those choices – Arnold wanted something that would capture the nervous energy of the moment. “With In the Mud by Kevin Gates, Sasha gets on the bus, she doesn’t know what she’s doing getting with this gang, and I wanted it to be exciting – like, is she doing the right thing? So I chose something based on what I felt was truthful to that moment. And the words to that song seemed to fit those kids’ lives on some level, they used to get really hyped up when it came on, they’ve got all these actions for it.” She starts doing little karate chops in the air with her hand:  “I’m all about my chips!”

Arnold’s affection for her cast of first-timers is palpable, and it’s easy to imagine the director – a warm, unpretentious figure with a stern fringe that nonetheless suggests one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – getting the best out of them. I ask her about the title of the film, nominally a rip from another soundtrack pick by Lady Antebellum, but perhaps a nod to the film’s social-commentary ambitions. She laughs dismissively. “American anything suggests a bigger sweep, doesn’t it? You couldn’t do, like, UK Honey, could you? Gravesend Honey. Dartford Honey.” As E-40 would put it: "nope".

American Honey is out in cinemas today.