American Honey opens in limited release today after an acclaimed festival run, and one of its great strengths is that it feels true enough that you can forget you’re not watching a documentary. Surely part of the reason it rings with such authenticity is that its lead actor so fully embodies her character. And as it turns out, there’s good explanation for that: Sasha Lane didn’t come out of an audition room in L.A. With just a week to go before they were scheduled to begin shooting, writer/director Andrea Arnold plucked Lane straight off a Panama City beach, where Lane — in white bikini, with the same tattoos and dreadlocks you see in the film — was on spring break from Texas State University in San Marcos.
“She kind of just ran after me,” Lane says. “It was a really bizarre way of meeting, very organic though.”
Lane, in the midst of a “crazy trip” that she says her mom had sent her on to try to get her to “live a little,” where she and her friends got kicked out of their hotel room, ended up starring in American Honey, despite having never acted, or even really considered it before, taking on a role that feels as much muse as it does lead actress. Lane plays Star, an abuse victim from a broken home with an inexorable attraction to trouble, who’s simultaneously streetwise and sheltered, wounded and proud. Watching Lane, it’s easy to see why Andrea Arnold was instantly captivated. In person and on film, the pan-ethnic actress (her mother is Kiwi and her father African-American) is a singularly compelling combination of tough and vulnerable, worldly and naive.
Normally, I wouldn’t fetishize the idea of the non-actor. The allure of the dilettante or the non-professional is mostly overrated. By and large, art, and acting, is just like anything else — people who are good at it are generally good because they practiced. But the entire point of American Honey is to depict a group of people who put the lie to the American dream. People who really don’t have the kind of opportunities and social mobility we’d like to believe everyone has. It’s a group that has a look that’s hard to fake — in style, manner, and spirit — especially in a Hollywood film. These are people who are essentially defined by an inability to dream the kind of big dream it would take to make someone move to L.A. and try to make it as an actor.
In the film, Lane’s character joins a “mag crew,” a group of magazine salespeople who travel across the country in a van selling magazine subscriptions (often with the help of some kind of sob story or scam), occasionally stealing from customers, and getting into the kind of trouble you’d expect from a group of post adolescent runaways with no supervision. In the film, and in real life, most mag crew kids are escaping some kind of chaotic home life to go on these weirdly anachronistic tours of itinerant capitalism, essentially selling people their own poverty.