Around the time that she was putting the finishing touches on her 2009 drama Fish Tank, English writer-director Andrea Arnold stumbled upon a 2007 New York Times piece about the desperate lives of "mag crews." It was a frank look at the young runaways traveling in groups across America, hawking magazine subscriptions when they weren't sleeping on floors in motel rooms. "I was gonna do it after Fish Tank," Arnold says. "Then, after I finished my next movie" – an adaptation of Emily Brontë's classic novel Wuthering Heights – "I wanted to get back to this. It had a lot of resonance for me ... just the world and what it involved, and all these kids coming from quite difficult places where they don't have too much family. So they make this surrogate family. I kinda loved that."
Arnold's new film, American Honey, captures those conflicting emotions — both the pain of living hand-to-mouth and the unexpected joy of finding one's tribe — with vivid detail. This vibrant road-trip movie follows a directionless teen named Star (played by luminous first-timer Sasha Lane) who gets involved with a crew of fellow lost souls selling magazines door-to-door. In a series of dynamic, episodic scenes, the young woman dives into this unusual work, enduring her domineering boss (a sexy, trashy Riley Keough) and falling in love with her cocky supervisor Jake (a revelatory Shia LaBeouf) as they encounter cowboys and oil workers, meth addicts and prickly religious suburbanites. Running 163 minutes, the film provides a Zeitgeist-y snapshot of American youth culture — the carefree partying, passionate sex and bitter resignation — but it's intimate enough to feel like a deeply personal work. Which is why Arnold doesn't want her movie to be read as an outsider's definitive State of the Union.
"I'm not trying to do a whole thing about America that is everybody's idea about America," she admits. "I've gone on road trips and grew up on your films, you know? But it's also what I've experienced by just driving around and what I've read. Interestingly, I have met a bunch of people who come from Middle America, and they said, 'Oh, you really captured it for me.'"
Arnold's own preparations inspired her to take road trips across the United States, finding any excuse she could. ("If I got asked to do a film festival jury somewhere in America or do a talk, I'd get them to fly me far away from where it was, and then I'd drive.") And she spent time with mag crews, soaking in their environment. "I saw a lot of vulnerability," she says. "It's hard to be out 10, 12, 18 hours a day, trying to get people to buy things. They get rejected all the time."
She also observed that the crews had a way to blow off steam. "They got back on the bus and put the music on, because it becomes the balm at the end of the day." Arnold took notes of the music these salespeople liked — lots of aggressive hip-hop — and knew that American Honey had to have a soundtrack that reflected, as she puts it, the characters' no-nonsense attitude of "gonna make money." Shooting chronologically and writing as she and her cast and crew journeyed from location to location, the director encouraged her cast to suggest songs, filming with tracks from Kevin Gates, E-40 and others blaring, nailing down the rights as they went along. For her, it was important to see the actors interact with the actual songs rather than faking it in postproduction. "Normally, music comes at the end," she says. "Usually, they're at a party, they put some music on, but they're all dancing to something else, so the rhythm's a bit off. I notice that in so many films! That's not my thing — I want everyone to be really dancing, 'cause music's such a big part of my life and especially that crew."
American Honey's brazen, propulsive tunes drive the film forward, but it's the unexpected, tempestuous love story between Star and Jake that give the film its center. LaBeouf's all-in performance as the scroungy, fast-talking Jake has deservedly received plenty of attention since the movie premiered at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize. But where some might suspect Arnold cast him to capitalize or comment on his bizarre public persona, the filmmaker insists she wasn't even aware. "One of our casting directors suggested him," she says, "and I thought, 'Oh, that's a really interesting idea.' So I met with him, and he has a huge energy. People said, 'You know, he's trouble, don't go there,' but I've never much listened to anything like that. I don't have a television and I don't read the papers. I didn't know that much about all that."
Still, there was the matter of finding Star. Arnold had been developing the part for someone else, "but because she had some difficult circumstances at home, she couldn't do it." Two days after the other actress dropped out — and with only a few weeks before shooting would commence — Arnold got on a plane to Panama City, Florida. Her rationale: "It was spring break, and I thought that, out of all the places in the world where I might find someone, teenagers wanna go there."
A few days later, Arnold was on the beach and spotted Lane – who'd been attending college in Texas before the filmmaker approached her – just relaxing with her brother and friends. "It was so weird," the actress says. "I told her, 'I don't do well with a camera in my face. I'm a really uncomfortable person.' [But] she explained to me why she wanted me to do it, which was because of everything that I am, and that she just wanted me to be me. Something about that just calmed me. I had this feeling — something just told me to go with it. It just felt right."
"I said, 'It won't be easy, you'll be tired,'" Arnold admits. "There are sex scenes, and you won't wanna do some things that I'm gonna ask you to do. But it's a big experience, and you'll probably learn a lot.' I definitely said to her, 'You'll get mad at me.'" Arnold laughs. "And she did."
What's so powerful about American Honey is how it encompasses both that excitement of youth and the anxious, on-the-margins world of its characters – both of which Arnold was keen on coexisting in the movie. "I was in a homeless shelter in Austin," she recalls, "and the man working there said to me, 'A lot of Americans see these [people] as throwaways.' I just wanted to show that they're not throwaways. I don't wanna get on any kind of soapbox, but I feel like that's not a way to live. It is an amazing place to be where you can show something that perhaps doesn't get seen."