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.
Real-life mag crews tell stories of the lowest sellers being forced to fight each other, or being dropped off in the middle of nowhere with $17 in their pocket when they decide they want out. It sounds bleak, and it is, but like the people themselves, the film doesn’t wallow in sadness. It’s as much about being free as it is being lost.
“There is this idea of looking for beauty in the midst of people that you wouldn’t normally think are beautiful, or that are not normally considered in life as anything worth looking at, or worth exploring,” Lane says of the film. “It was this part of America that I knew very well, and I thought ‘Yeah, that needs to be shown, and I think that’s amazing.'”
“It was very raw and real, and very resilient and very beautiful, and very light in such a dark kind of setting, with people who are discarded, just like how I felt.”
American Honey flips the script on Kerouac and the Beat generation, which was largely defined by people who wandered because they had a choice. American Honey depicts characters who wander mostly because they don’t. And for the viewer, the draw of these discarded isn’t their tragedy (though it’s always a backdrop), it’s their community. And if it looks real, that’s partly because it is.
“We stayed in those motels, we rode in that van, we became very familiar and comfortable with these places,” Lane says. “We are these people from the street, and we know this type of world. We were all looking for something, and we did connect very strongly. That’s how it just felt so natural, because it kind of was. [Andrea Arnold] created this little universe, that made it very easy to stay in that.”
This, of course, required a unique approach to casting that went way beyond discovering Lane. “Andrea and I scouted together quite a lot,” casting director Lucy Pardee told The Ringer. “One day, we sat in deck chairs outside of Walmart, with a fruit platter, next to a trash can. And people were coming up to us like, ‘What are you doing?’ And if they were young we’d say, ‘Wanna be in a movie?’ We went to the areas where a mag crew recruiter would go to find the sort of young people who are ready to go on an adventure.”
Just getting the right people together was part of the peculiar alchemy that makes American Honey work. Of course, not everyone in American Honey came fresh off the beach. Lane had to jump straight from obscurity to doing love scenes with America’s clickbait problem child, Shia LaBeouf. I asked her what she knew about her co-star going in.
“Of course, you hear things and there’s certain things… but the fact that Andrea chose him, I knew that he was a human. There was some soul, and there was something about him that was very raw and real,” she says. “[Andrea] wouldn’t have chosen anyone if there wasn’t a light in them, and there wasn’t something very raw about them.”
Indeed, American Honey finds a side of Shia LaBeouf, outfitted in juggler suspenders and a ridiculous French braid, that we haven’t seen before, that feels closer to his essential essence than any role he’s played before. It’s probably his best work. (Also, he looks very stinky.)
The other component of American Honey, and the reason it’s one of the rare works entitled “American ____” that actually fits its moniker, is place. American Honey was shot on location in all of the places it depicts, with a cast of kids who were mostly seeing them for the first time. It became as much road trip for the actors as it is road movie for the audience.
“Kansas City, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska; all of those places were new to me. I’m from the South,” says Lane, who was born in Houston and grew up outside of Dallas, “so open skies are so beautiful to me. I saw the northern lights when I was in North Dakota, so that was really amazing. North Dakota was actually… Where we were was a really dark place, there was such an energy about it. They’re pumping oil all day long, and they go get really drunk, and then they go fuck strippers. The energy was so dark, it was really hard to be there.”
Lane says she finished up at Texas State (majoring in psychology and social work) before shooting, and now she’s splitting time between Texas and L.A., just sort of taking life as it comes to her. I asked her what she thought the film was about.
“I think it’s about resilience,” Lane says. “And I think it’s about empathy, and having to look for the beauty, because if you let all of the bad, and all the darkness, and all of the stereotypes consume you, you will drown. You have to push past that, it’s about freedom.”
“Which stereotypes?” I ask.
“Because someone is dirty, and a little grimy looking, that they will kill you. Because someone is drinking, and smoking, and comes from bad background, that they are not worth giving a second chance, being looked at twice; they are not beautiful. America, in general, there’s so many opportunities and we like to say it’s the land of the free, when that’s not really the case.”
And so it is she now becomes that perfect paradox, helping depict those with limited horizons, while in the process expanding her own — the exception that proves the rule, as some like to say. Is more acting in her future?
“If I can continue it in the way that I feel good,” she says. “I can only do things that I connect to, or that I get passionate about, and get excited about. If I can continue to feel good about it, and do things in that way, and find those projects, then I definitely want to.”
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.