American Honey: Best British Independent Film Nominee

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

An Andrea Arnold film is always a hotly-anticipated event in the world of independent film. After the stunning Scottish-set Red Road, the lauded drama Fish Tank established her as a fascinating director with a talent for drawing memorable performances from her lead actors. Like Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights, American Honey stays close to its young heroine. Star (Best Actress nominee Sasha Lane) is a troubled teen who flees an abusive home to travel with a roving sales crew lead by the charismatic Jake (Best Actor nominee Shia LaBeouf). Taking their van through the American Midwest, the eclectic young gang flog magazine subscriptions using a mix of sales techniques and hard luck stories – something rebellious Star finds a challenge at first. But this is no career story: it’s all about the people. As a hesitant relationship forms between Star and Jake, tensions emerge and tempers flair, bringing fascinating characters to the fore. 

Best Director nominee Arnold’s first foray into US territory is a triumph, beautifully capturing the mood of life on the road with stops in Muskogee, Kansas City, Omaha, Grand Island, Rapid City, Williston and Pine Ridge. Truck stops, motels and suburban homes all become characters in themselves, in the expert hands of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, a long-time Arnold collaborator and a nominee for this year’s Outstanding Achievement in Craft award. The film shoot echoed the road trip the characters take, says producer Lars Knudsen. ‘We promised ourselves we would only stay at low rent motels, only drive not fly, limit ourselves to the real routes, and cast as many locals as possible.’ The result is a vivid sense of authenticity, drawing the viewer into an intimate journey.

As ever, Arnold’s work is based in reality: she was inspired by a New York Times article about salespeople working in the States, and cast young people with similar backgrounds to those recruited by the sales companies. ‘I sat on the beach and watched all the thousands of teenagers go by,’ says Arnold of her US-based recruiting. ‘We were literally having auditions in a Walmart car park.’ Eleven of the crew of 15 had never acted before: they include skateboarder Isiah Stone, former exotic dancer Crystal B Ice, and Shawna Rae Moseley, whose pitbull Bella also appears in the film. At the centre of the story, Sasha Lane is an extraordinary find. Arnold spotted her on the beach at Spring Break, and swiftly cast her in the lead role of Star. Lane’s screen presence is magnetic, and her chemistry with seasoned star LaBoeuf palpable. Much of the dialogue is improvised, allowing the quirky characters to shine through and showcasing a side of America that is rarely seen on screen. 

One of American Honey’s other joys is its music, which takes in many favourites from the cast as well as Arnold’s personal choices. Infectious rap features heavily, along with toe-tapping modern country songs. It seems that one of Britain’s brightest talents has made a truly American film – and there is still something unmistakably Andrea Arnold about its spirit. 

Words: Anna Smith

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