The director Andrea Arnold.Illustration by Rebecca Clarke
The Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, on Hampstead Heath, a patch of wilderness in North London, is surrounded by trees and populated by ducks. Regulars bathe year-round, breaking the ice with their toes in midwinter. On a surprisingly hot September afternoon, the British film director Andrea Arnold lowered herself into the water. She had driven from the other side of the city for a cold plunge. As she swam, she kept veering off the conventional counterclockwise course around the edge of the pond to try to get nose to nose with one of the passing mallards. One let her float up close, almost touching, before scooting across the water.
Arnold’s films, beloved by critics but until recently largely bypassed by the mainstream, are full of animal encounters. In “American Honey”—her first film to be made in the United States, and her third to win the Jury Prize at Cannes—a flying squirrel lives in a boy’s pocket, moths flap at sunlit windowpanes, and, in a wordless scene, a kid stabs at a supermarket chicken on a filthy kitchen floor. As always, beauty and brutality sit tight. Two of Arnold’s previous films were elliptical dramas featuring teen-agers in impoverished English edgelands. They pulsed with sexual longing and barely suppressed violence. In “Fish Tank” (2009), Arnold’s most autobiographical film, Mia, a fifteen-year-old living in East London, becomes infatuated with, and is gradually seduced by, her young single mother’s new boyfriend (an ideally creepy Michael Fassbender). In Arnold’s adaption of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” (2011), a semi-feral Cathy licks the blood from Heathcliff’s wounds after he’s been beaten for misbehavior.
“I taught myself at twenty-one, by jumping in the deep end,” Arnold said, plowing through the water with a solid breaststroke. The director, who is fifty-five, kept her head up, her eyes framed by bright-blue mascara. Nearby, an elderly woman gingerly waded into the pond, and Arnold let out a resounding cheer. On a later circuit, someone started singing “Happy Birthday,” and she joined in as she bobbed through the reeds. “I love this place. The first time I came, I found it very emotional,” she said, cheerfully.
While shooting her Brontë adaptation, Arnold went through a period of wearing long black coats. While working on “American Honey,” she bought a Stetson, entering a new sartorial phase. On the meadow next to the pond, Arnold sat on a damp towel; her denim shorts, denim blouse, boots, and green shoelaces made her look like she’d just hopped off a ranch pony. All around us, swimmers of various shapes and ages unfurled in the sun, naked, breasts swinging. “I love these ladies,” she said, mesmerized. “I love that everyone can be so comfortable.”
“American Honey” was inspired by a Times article about “mag crews,” groups of young people who travel across America selling magazine subscriptions door to door. She started researching the film after the last screening of “Wuthering Heights” at Sundance, when she decided to skip her flight home, hire a car, and drive across the country for ten days, the first in a series of solo road trips. “I had this idea that I would just ask people where to go, and I’d go wherever they told me,” she said. “I drove through the whole of Utah because the waitress at Denny’s told me to go to a town that was on the edge of Utah.” In the South, she set herself the challenge of finding somewhere to dance every night. “I did pretty well: Cajun two-step, two-step, blues.”
Like Arnold’s own road trip, “American Honey” was dictated by chance and instinct. She shot the film in chronological sequence, not telling her young cast—who, as with many of her films, were mostly non-actors, youths she encountered—where they were going next. The meandering narrative unfolds in a series of impressionistic paintings, long takes in which the mag-crew kids drink, smoke, sing, dance, and stare out of the windows of their van at Midwestern plains. It might be catastrophically self-indulgent if it didn’t look so good, or if the chemistry between the two central characters, Star (played by the newcomer Sasha Lane) and Jake (a febrile, magnetic Shia LeBeouf), weren’t so palpable.
At the beginning of the film, Star abandons her dysfunctional family in Oklahoma to join the mag crew as they drive to Kansas City and beyond. She and Jake, a crew leader, skirt each other, wary and besotted. Arnold’s characters are children and adults at once. In one scene, Star sits in a car with an oilman, and in return for a thousand dollars silently spreads her legs while he masturbates (but only after he tells her to stop talking so much). “I keep calling them kids,” Arnold said of the cast. “But they’re young adults, really. I don’t know what the word is.” Arnold considered the preoccupation with youth in her films. “Maybe I’ll move on in the next one.”
Arnold’s own childhood was spent on a housing estate, the equivalent of a housing project, in Dartford, Kent—near London, but fundamentally not London. “Chalk pits and fields and woods and motorways. I was always out exploring.” Her single mother had Arnold at sixteen and four children by the age of twenty-two. Arnold predicted her future would be “on the same estate, with a lot of kids probably.” Like Mia in “Fish Tank,” who obsessively practices hip-hop routines, Arnold sought escape through dance. When she was seventeen, she won a place at the Laban Dance Centre, a leading London school. There was a separate audition for the grant she needed, in which she freestyled around the room. “I didn’t have that whole official ballet-training thing,” she said, cackling at the memory; she didn’t receive the funding, and so couldn’t take the place. Still, she calls dance “the secret to everything.” To unwind, she dances by herself in her room or in two-hour sessions in a hall with strangers, run by a movement group called 5Rhythms. “By the end, you feel you’ve slept with a hundred people.”
Arnold left home at eighteen, moved to London, and joined a dance troupe called Zoo, which performed on “Top of the Pops,” the British equivalent of “American Bandstand.” Later, she started “very badly acting.” You can watch her on YouTube in an episode of “No. 73,” an eighties kids’ program, in which she played Dawn Lodge, who zips around on roller skates in a jumpsuit, fringe hair sprayed skyward. Arnold didn’t like being in front of the camera. In her late twenties, she moved to L.A. to attend the American Film Institute. In Britain, she said, “I felt my lack of education and accent always held me back in the eyes of the gatekeepers.” Still, she returned to make her first films, including the short film “Wasp,” which won an Academy Award, and, in 2006, “Red Road,” a sexually charged thriller set on a Glasgow housing estate. Her habit of casting non-actors began with “Fish Tank,” three years later: Katie Jarvis, who played Mia, was discovered on a train-station platform, arguing with her boyfriend.
For “American Honey,” Arnold trawled the Internet looking for “the right kind of faces,” then went hunting—not through agents’ portfolios but on the street, reacting to people’s “energy” and “spirit.” She approached Lane on a beach in Panama City where Lane was hanging out with friends during spring break, recovering from an all-nighter. They held an audition in a hotel foyer, discussed finer points in a Waffle House. Shooting started two weeks later. Other cast members were found in supermarkets, usually Walmarts, often in the parking lots. “It’s absolutely hopping, there’s all kinds going on in there. I mean, you really could sit there all day and just have a blast.”
LaBeouf, the best known of the actors in the film, is also one of the most volatile in the industry, known for a public unravelling following long years of playing Sam Witwicky in the “Transformers” franchise. This made him only more intriguing to Arnold. She first met him in a London taxi-drivers’ café. “He was sitting there among the cab drivers and easy with it all,” she said. Arnold found him “raw, and kind of naked somehow”—well-suited for the troubled sidekick and sexual plaything of the crew’s ferocious boss, Krystal, played by Riley Keough, who in one scene wears a Confederate-flag bikini as Jake massages her legs with fake tan.
Arnold makes her films by watching, letting her actors be themselves and filming what they do. “I hate tracking shots. Anything that restricts the camera makes me feel constrained,” she said. The cast, like the magazine crew, bonded fast. Party scenes had to be re-shot because “everyone was tired from all the real partying going on.” Sometimes, Arnold had to impose discipline. “Being a director is a bit like being a parent on some level,” she said. “I’m the one who’s got to pull it together.” Many of the actors had never been on a plane before taking part in the film; travelling with them meant taking on their problems.
Lane, when I spoke to her on the phone, told me that Arnold’s directorial style was to provide support. “She just constantly told me to be who I was. There wasn’t really any teaching. More like, ‘Sasha, you’re fine.’ ” If the microphone attachment hadn’t repeatedly got stuck in her dreadlocks, Lane said, she would have forgotten the camera was there at all.
Arnold has documented deprivation in all her films, but, driving across the country before shooting the movie, she found that it had an edge in America, without the safety net whose presence is assumed in Britain: the N.H.S., benefits, state support. “American Honey” doesn’t sentimentalize poverty, nor does it gawp. Instead, it offers an account of deep societal divisions, and of class—the unfathomable gulf. The film is punctuated by moments in which members of the crew step off their tour bus into neighborhoods they’ve never seen before—some economically depressed areas like the ones they come from, others bastions of the one per cent. In one scene, Star and Jake enter a suburban mansion and watch as the owner’s teen-age daughter and her friends perform an erotic dance routine, for Jake's benefit, in the back garden. Arnold herself doesn’t dole out views or politics; she observes, films, and shuts up: the anti-proselytiser. She’s loathe to interpret her films or anyone else’s. If she hears an artist she loves talking on the radio, she’ll turn it off, in case they say too much.
Geese flew overhead and the evening sun reflected off the pond and into the trees. The meadow had emptied of naked women. Arnold let slip that a new idea was in the works, and then suddenly became quiet. “It’s here,” Arnold said, tapping her chest. “And then it kind of grows, and then I go out and put it in images, and then it’s edited, and then it’s over there.” She pointed to a place in the evening air, somewhere toward the ducks.
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