Early in "American Honey," a charismatically skeevy character named Jake jumps on a checkout stand in a Midwestern discount store to dance to Rihanna's "We Found Love." The focus of his attention, a young woman named Star, soon enough leaves behind her abject family life to hop in a van with Jake's vagabond sales team, a "mag crew" hustling magazine subscriptions to anyone who answers their door.
The first film made in America by British-born filmmaker Andrea Arnold, "American Honey" stars a riveting Shia LaBeouf as Jake, a magnetic Riley Keough as tough-as-nails crew queen Krystal and electric newcomer Sasha Lane in a breakout turn as Star. A Texan who just turned 21 but was 19 when the film was shot, Lane was discovered by Arnold on a Florida beach during spring break.
Arnold was initially inspired by a newspaper article about mag crews. So while her impulse was to make a film in America, it was not necessarily her intention to make a film so sharply about America, a travelogue portrait of a land of disparity, adventure, malaise and the possibility of transformation.
"I think that grew a bit … more with my experience," Arnold said during a recent interview alongside Lane during the Toronto International Film Festival. "I've been to quite a lot of America, but the parts where a lot of the mag-crew kids came from I hadn't really seen. So I wanted to explore.
"And I think the film is a kind of mixture of the sort of myth of America, what I grew up on and the images I got from Hollywood films and also the things I learned when I was there by myself. So I think it became this kind of mix of those two things. Obviously if I'm going to be [telling the story of] the mag crew on the minibus and they're selling and the heart of America is about selling, it's going to take on that kind of bigger picture."
"American Honey" premiered earlier this year in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where Arnold and her scrappy cast danced down the formal red carpet to the E-40 rap "Choices (Yup)" also heard in the film. Arnold won the festival's jury prize for the third time, having already received that honor for 2006's "Red Road" and 2009's "Fish Tank." The new film has now opened to warm reviews — The Times' Justin Chang called it "wild, rambling and astonishingly beautiful" — and solid box office in limited release and will continue to expand around the country.
Arnold won an Oscar for her 2003 short film "Wasp," but her real breakthrough was "Fish Tank," the story of a young British girl struggling to break free from the prescribed life in her tower block. (It was also among the early major glimpses of actor Michael Fassbender.) Though "Fish Tank" was not a box-office hit on initial release, Arnold's unique blend of grit and lyricism has seen its stature only grow in the years since, cited as an influence by the likes of "Girls" creator Lena Dunham.
Jill Soloway hired Arnold to direct episodes of the second and third seasons of her series "Transparent" and also the upcoming show "I Love Dick."
"She's my hero!" said Soloway of Arnold in a recent email. "What she does with her art-making is a way of holding feeling — using the frame to invoke desire in a way I'd never seen before.
"To me she's like my Scorsese, a feminist Cassavetes or Altman," Soloway added. "She brings her own wild open style that has her absolute signature voice in it."
Keough, recently seen in "Mad Max: Fury Road" and the television series "The Girlfriend Experience," was likewise a fan of "Fish Tank," and when she heard that Arnold was making a film stateside, she reached out to a casting director and put herself on tape multiple times until she got a chance to audition in person.
"She just captures people so beautifully," Keough said of Arnold, "the complexities and depth of everybody in all of her movies, all of the characters."
Arnold prefers to cast both professional and non-professional actors, finding they bring out unexpected performances from one another. She likewise didn't provide her actors with complete scripts, feeding them pages for upcoming scenes and preferring the spontaneity of having them figure out their performances in the moment.
"If you have a script, sometimes actors will work out how they're going to do it, practice, rehearse, all that kind of thing. I never like doing anything like that," Arnold said. "I like to keep things quite fresh and create a controlled chaos."
For "American Honey" that meant taking the entire production on an actual road trip from Oklahoma to North Dakota over some 56 days in summer 2015. Arnold rewrote as they went along, adjusting the characters and story to bring out aspects of the performances that she was responding to.
"It didn't feel like a regular movie," Keough said of the unusual production. "We'd just all hang out and when we had to go shoot something, we'd go shoot it and then go back to the motel and hang out."
Early cuts of the movie were well over three hours, and while Arnold acknowledges that the final running time of just over 2 hours and 40 minutes may seem long to some, the length was designed to replicate the feel of a long car trip, when it seems you're always still a few hours away from where you want to be.
"When I first showed it there was a lot of 'Oh my God, I feel like I've been on the bus,' because you're on the bus quite a lot," Arnold said. "But actually that's the life: You are on that bus, you live on that bus. That is how it is. The torture of being on that bus a lot is kind of partly what it's about."
It is not lost on Lane that just as her character impulsively jumps in a van to pursue a new life, she herself said yes to going off with the British lady who came up to her one day on the beach.
"I think Star had nothing left to lose at that point and she was looking for something. And that's exactly how I felt," said Lane of the connection with her character. "Mentally, I was very hopeless. I knew something was missing, I had a feeling something was going to happen. I just didn't know what it was. And I just figured why not, you know?"