YOUTH IN REVOLT
‘American Honey’: The Most Beautifully Anarchic—and American—Movie of the Year
Filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s latest is a road trip saga about a group of hell-raising twentysomethings in search of the American dream.
The cast of American Honey had just stepped off the party bus they’d been riding around Toronto when I met them in the lobby of the four-star hotel where they’re staying. Unsurprisingly, they’re a bouncy bunch you can hear coming a mile away. They were rolling relatively small this time around; a miniature version of the raucous crew of magazine-selling youths writer-director Andrea Arnold handpicked from across America and packed into a cramped van for a summer to make her feverishly alive coming-of-age drama.
They’d been in town for the Toronto International Film Festival for a day, shuttling from one photo shoot to the next. In the lead-up to the film’s Sept. 30 release, cameras have been particularly keen on 20-year-old star Sasha Lane, the cinematic discovery of the year, who kicked off her heels after lunch and padded off through the InterContinental Hotel. Newcomers Raymond “Ray Ray” Coalson, Isaiah Stone, and McCaul Lombardi flanked The Girlfriend Experience’s Riley Keough with the warm familiarity of their onscreen counterparts, itinerant kids who form a surrogate family as traveling magazine sellers under Keough’s tough Southern taskmistress Krystal.
Coalson, a perennially grinning West Virginian with an outsized personality, goes by “Ray Ray” in real life and “JJ” in the film. He remembered what he did the night before when they all arrived to town from their respective corners of the country. “I got drunk,” he laughed unashamedly. It’d been a Friday night in Toronto, downtown clubgoers colliding with baseball fans on the streets. “Blue Jays succccck,” Ray Ray beamed. “Yankees are the shit.”
The tight-knit American Honey crew mobs deep no matter where they are, whether in Cannes, where they premiered in May and won the Jury Prize, or Canada. Living, working, and partying together on an intense summer-long road trip will do that to strangers, 15 of whom first met when they showed up in June 2015 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, to start the most extraordinary adventure of their lives. Arnold has led this pack ever since—part den mother, part co-conspirator, chasing a verisimilitude of youth onscreen and off.
All along the way in Toronto, it was Arnold, a 55-year-old British woman with strawberry blonde hair and an unfettered glint in her eye, who’d led the mobile dance party everywhere they went, dancing to Drake as the crew rides around the 6. Fast forward to the American Honey premiere the next night and it made perfect sense when I ran into Arnold wearing a cowboy hat, enormous truck stop belt buckle, and jeans, dancing up a frenzy with her stars and rapping along to E-40, OG Maco, and Rae Sremmurd.
“I love Kevin Gates,” she confessed to me with a smile. Most of the music in the film were just the songs her bored cast would listen to on their own as they drove through the Gulf coast. She lit up explaining how Riri’s “We Found Love” made it into the film. While writing the film she envisioned it would hold special meaning for the mag crew, but on set during filming her actors got sick of the song and revolted. Still, she wrote to Rihanna to ask her permission to use the track, and it remains one of the most evocative music cues in the film. Arnold smiled in awe. “I love Rihanna.”
There was a time not too long ago when Arnold thought she’d never make a movie in America—let alone one of the most American films of the year. “I thought, ‘I need to make films about what I know,’” she tells me during a break in the festival madness ahead of the film’s North American premiere. “So I went home to make films about the U.K. I thought that making what you knew had to be absolutely of the place—but actually you can emotionally make a film set anywhere. American Honey feels more me than any movie I’ve ever made, and yet it’s set in America.”
Arnold had won an Oscar for her 2005 short film Wasp before establishing herself as one of the last decade’s freshest cinematic voices with Red Road, Fish Tank, and Wuthering Heights. But during a trip to the Sundance Film Festival she realized all the land she wasn’t seeing just flying from one film event to the next. She decided to take a solo road trip through Utah, staying in motels and chatting up locals as she went, listening to what real Americans listen to on the radio on those long drives.
Inspired by her own childhood ideas of the America she’d seen in movies and a New York Times story about teens from economically depressed towns who join up with “mag crews” for a taste of the open road, the chance to make money, and an alluring sense of lawless hustle, she wrote the tale of one girl’s coming-of-age journey and named the script after the Lady Antebellum song she’d heard in heavy rotation during her travels.
The song was too perfect not to. “I played that song while I did a lot of road trips by myself, learning about America,” she said. “That song played a lot… I think the film is a sort of mix of what I perceived America to be from growing up on Hollywood films, and what I actually found it to be. The idyllic farm houses in the countryside, I saw so many run-down farmhouses... to me, that run-down farmhouse is the old America that we grew up with.”
Arnold had another actress set to play Star, the protagonist bursting at the seams to escape her terrible home life for the promise of a bigger world, but hit a snag when the girl dropped out right before filming. So the filmmakers went immediately to Panama City, Florida, to cast the old-fashioned way: by scouting teenagers as they partied.
“It’s quite a thing, spring break,” marveled Arnold. “I spent half my time picking up drunken students and taking them back to their motels because I felt so sorry for them. You’d find people drunk in the street on their face, with rucksacks with tubes of alcohol. We did actually take quite a few home because they lost their way or were so drunk…”
Lane, who sports her own distinctive dreadlocks and tattoos in the film, was a Texas State University freshman in town partying with friends on a beach when Arnold & Co. spotted her. “We ran after her,” Arnold recalled. “I mean, it’s always a bit weird approaching girls on spring break in their bikinis, like, ‘Do you wanna be in a film?’ And I think they do get a lot of people there casting for porn. So I’m not surprised they’re suspicious when you run up to them. They should be, to be honest.”
Lane’s innate depth and charisma carries American Honey, and explodes in the hormonal throes of first love when her Star meets Jake (Shia LeBeouf), the number 2 man running Krystal’s operation. As they traveled from motel to motel with the film’s 40-strong crew, the verite world on wheels took shape. There was plenty of downtime, and when there was downtime there was partying—nights that bring devilish grins to the faces of Keough, Coulson, Stone, and Lombardi.
“It was crazy,” said McCaul Lombardi, a golden-haired Baltimore native who moved to Los Angeles at 19 to pursue acting. He describes his role in American Honey as an extension of his own personality, but audiences will remember him as the cackling prankster always showing his junk to the other kids on the crew. “All I can say about it was it was fucking nuts. American Honey 2 could never happen or somebody would end up dead.”
To hear the mag crew tell it, filming American Honey was just as crazy an experience as it seems onscreen in scenes that come alive with the clashing personalities of a dozen-plus kids partying, bickering, and hustling their way across the heartland.
“We didn’t know nothing,” explained Ray Ray. “Even when we got there we weren’t allowed to know anything. They were like, ‘We’re about to leave,’ we’d pack up, and end up somewhere else.”
They bonded after shooting, partying until dawn before 8 a.m. call times, getting in and out of trouble mostly unbeknownst to Arnold, whose knowing smile when I inquire about drugs and alcohol on set suggest a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on partying. One night, legend has it, the cast was partying when a bunch of them decided to get tattoos—one of their favorite pastimes on the shoot. Most of them got matching “071s,” denoting their fictional mag crew handle, on various parts of their bodies.
Keough, perhaps most surprising of all given her Hollywood career, offered me a glimpse at her right hand, where she had the word “Nope” etched in ink above her wrist—a reference to Bay Area rapper E-40’s “Choices (Yup),” a favorite track during filming.
“Another girl on the film has the ‘Yup,’” explained McCaul, who claims the honor of being the one to play “Choices” in the van in the first place. “I like to say that was my contribution.” All three snickered at the idea that LaBeouf was somehow peer pressured, as he described it in a recent interview, into getting tattoos of Missy Elliott’s face on both of his knees.
“He wasn’t forced to do it!” said McCaul. “He went missing for a day and came back with those.”
“None of us were there so god knows what happened,” added Keough. Stone, a skater kid with long blond hair who’s only slightly less quiet than his onscreen counterpart, chimed in. “No, I was there—it was on my birthday,” he said. Keough did a double take. “What? I was there! I was just really drunk,” she smiled. “I remember now.”
“Then he came back with Tupac and Prince,” added McCaul. “I was like ‘Bro, you’re wilding out.’”
The crewmates remember wild nights in some of the smallest towns in the United States. At least a few locations have specific meaning. “The last place we were was Pine Ridge, which is a Native American reservation, and Andrea wrote that in because I had a personal connection to it as well,” offered Keough, whose Krystal is a terrifying force, even while standing half-naked in a Confederate flag bikini ordering LaBeouf to slather her with lotion like a manservant. “I think you get the idea that they’re all kind of looking for something.”
Whatever they got into in Williston, North Dakota, no one has particularly fond memories. “I don’t know what we found there but misery,” quipped Keough.
Ray Ray, who doesn’t consider himself an actor so much as the next reality TV star, concurs: “I fucked Williston up.” He and McCaul look lovingly across the table at one another and laugh at how much they loathed each other when they first met. “There were a lot of personality differences at first. We just hated each other. There were so many personalities in such a confined area. It was an explosion waiting to happen. Very interesting explosions.”
One Carnage song that made it onto the soundtrack gives Keough nightmare flashbacks to the night they shot a party scene in which the entire crew is getting rowdy outside their motel, celebrating another day on the grind. In it, Krystal imposes the crew’s most brutal rule: The crew’s lowest seller gets a beating as punishment while everyone else looks on, a scene that called for McCaul to strip naked, covered in paint, to bellow his version of a haka from the roof of a van.
Keough frowned. “That night scarred me. It was ratch as fuck.”
She laughed at the thought of trying to compare her American Honey shoot to any other more traditional film she’s done. “This movie had nothing to do with acting for me,” she said. “That was more about sort of figuring out myself, and it made me realize that’s what every movie should be about. Andrea gave us an environment that we could do a lot more than you usually get to do in a film, so it was really special. It made me sad, because I wish you could be that immersed in every film. I don’t know if I’ll ever get an experience like that again.”
The next night, after premiering American Honey, the Mag Crew descended upon Toronto’s only country-themed bar and danced for hours with the folks from A24’s other TIFF darling, Moonlight. Across the room, industry types in suits got loose and rode a mechanical bull. When the DJ played Rihanna’s “We Found Love” between other trap selections from the movie—and from the soundtrack of their Summer ’15—the entire place lost its mind as the 071 crew partied rapturously into the night.