'American Honey' Is a Brilliant Film About Society's 'Throwaways'

We talked to director Andrea Arnold and her cast about her film that could be an instant classic.

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Sep 28 2016, 4:00am

Photo by Holly Horner, courtesy of A24

Andrea Arnold's fourth film, American Honey, is an impressionistic and engaging epic that follows homeless 18-year-old Star (Sasha Lane) as she traverses the basin of America working as part of a "mag crew"—a group of youths who go door-to-door in US neighborhoods hawking magazine subscriptions, living on what they earn, and living in the moment. Facing highs and lows that include a torrid romance with fellow mag-crew'er Jake (Shia LeBoeuf), lecherous potential clients, and the squalor that streaks America's lower-class realities, Star's experience is shared with the audience as a journey without a specific endpoint: a reflection of growing up, and the confusion and ecstasy that surrounds it.

Distributed by indie-film powerhouse A24 and produced in part by Pulse Films (which VICE has a majority stake in), American Honey is the latest success in Arnold's career, which has also included directing credits on season two of Transparent and the 2009 coming-of-age drama Fish Tank. The latter won the jury prize when screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and American Honey did the same during this year's fest as well; when I met with Arnold and some of the film's mag-crew cast on a hot September afternoon in A24's offices, some of them had returned from the film's screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and they were still in a celebratory mood.

"We had a party bus—that was my favorite thing," Arnold said, beaming amid the gregarious noise coming from her cast—18-year-old Dakota Powers, 22-year-old Raymond Coalson, 21-year-olds Chad Cox and Isaiah Stone, and 25-year-old McCaul Lombardi—as they got settled in. "We had a good party, and we danced at the party hard." Inspired by a New York Times article about life on the road among mag crews, Arnold sought further inspiration—and casting—by going on a road trip through under-explored parts of the US, from the Deep South to eastern Texas and Utah. "I needed to get to know America a bit more," she explained.

For Powers, Coalson, and Cox, the film was their first time acting, and the opportunity was a change of pace from what they were doing when approached by Arnold's team: Cox was working in construction in Virginia, Powers was couch-surfing in Nashville while looking for work, and Coalson was largely homeless in his Panama City, Florida, hometown, taking in spring break while trying to find steady employment. "When Andrea casted me, I'd never felt so much love in my life from just meeting someone," Coalson intoned, with complete earnestness. "Before this movie, I could've been dead. I was dying."

Much of American Honey features the mag crew engaging in various daily rituals: driving around in a van, partying, and blasting recent hits from musical acts like Atlanta rap duo Rae Sremmurd and Chicago R&B impresario Jeremih—and, most ubiquitously, Rihanna's "We Found Love," Arnold's personal choice for the soundtrack and a dizzying, immortal pop explosion that acts as the film's theme song. The filmmaking process undoubtedly established a strong camaraderie among the actors (and Arnold) that clearly still exists to this day; during our interview, a gently boisterous vibe persisted throughout, with as much crosstalk as there was compassion for one another.

VICE: While filming, were there parts of America you guys had never seen before?
Raymond Coalson:
South Dakota was awesome.
Dakota Powers: The pretty stuff you see in the movie—the little ghetto towns that we shot at—was pretty much like my hometown, so it felt like I was home but in a different area.
McCaul Lombardi: South Dakota took us all aback. None of us had been there. It's so visually incredible—from the Badlands to Mount Rushmore to Crazy Horse. The Badlands was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
Andrea Arnold: What do you remember, Chad?
Chad Cox: The Badlands were amazing.
Arnold: He deserves a medal because he did most of the driving [in the film].

How hard was it to drive while being filmed?
Cox:
It was a different experience. You're trying to drive and be in the moment at the same time.
Lombardi: Also, he had ten people yelling at him at one time.
Arnold: And the music was playing.

How did you prepare for playing mag-crew kids?
Lombardi:
For pre-production, we all flew out and had mag-crew classes that we took. We brought in some real mag-crew guys, and they sat down and talked with us for a week. It was cool to hear their life compared to what we were about to go embark on.
Arnold: Then I'd make them go out and sell [magazines], and I said that if they made any money they could keep it. [Laughs]

How much money did you guys make selling magazines?
Coalson:
I made $70.
Lombardi: It was cool because we'd go to the houses with our own little stories.
Coalson: They tried to call the cops on us in Nebraska—like, "Get out of here! Do you want us to call the cops?" And we were like, "Call the cops!"
Powers: It was a really nice neighborhood, too, so that's probably why.
Arnold: I'm pretty impressed no one got arrested. [Laughs]

The film frequently focuses on class issues in America. Did making it change any of your own views on class in America?
Coalson:
What I got out of the movie when I watched it was, don't give up—even if you have the worst situation, you can make it the best if you have faith and hope. You see all of us homeless, but we're family and we're happy. If you're homeless, just have fun and go get in the river! [Laughs] Make the best out of your situation.
Lombardi: I feel like everybody on this film needed this film at this time in their lives.
Coalson: It saved my life.
Lombardi: It helped a lot of us so much. We all needed the family that we built from this, and you can see in the film. When we're listening to music, we're all on the same beat, staring at one another, repeating the songs word for word. There was a sense of family that we didn't necessarily have [beforehand] but we built.
Coalson: We're all misfits. Hearing everybody's backstories—we come from bad places. [Andrea] wanted to change our lives, in a way, but I don't think she realized that she actually did. I went from being homeless to living in one of the biggest cities in the United States—I live in LA now, and everything I ever dreamed about and was on my bucket list has happened.

Something impressive about American Honey is that it's about homeless youth in America without seeming exploitative. Andrea, was that in the back of your mind while making this film?
Arnold:
The thing that attracted me to doing a film about the mag-crew world was the way everyone in that world comes together and forms a family. When we were casting, I made it clear that, for everyone we cast, I wanted to make sure their light was on—and for everyone here, their light is on.

Andrea's films typically capture rituals among people—what people do when they're together—and American Honey features many scenes where the cast is hanging out and engaging with one another in different ways. How long did it take for everyone to fall into that groove?
Five seconds. [Laughs]
Lombardi: All these kids were flown in who didn't know one another, and at first we were all guarded. It took a second to learn to trust one another, but once that trust was there, it was a special thing. [Gestures toward Coalson] In the beginning, me and him did not like each other at all. Now, I would die for this kid.
Coalson: People I first started hanging out with on this movie, I ended up hating them at the end. People I began hating, I was hanging out with them at the end. [Laughs, gestures toward the room] These were the nicest people I met in the movie. Everybody else can just go, "Bye."

Hip-hop plays a large role in the film's soundtrack. What role has hip-hop played in your guys' lives?
I like hip-hop because it makes me strive to be better. It's always about money and stuff like that. When I'm down and out and about to give up on myself, I listen to rap music. [Sings] "I'm on my grind..." Like, fuck, dude, let me get on my grind!
Lombardi: When we have a group of people like this who need that, you need that to prosper. You can't listen to a country song—it's gonna make you want to kill yourself.
Arnold: Country songs don't make me want to kill myself.
Coalson: I like old country, like George Jones. This new stuff is like, "Ohhhhh, she left me." How are you supposed to drink to that?
Lombardi: [The chorus to ILoveMakonnen and DJ Carnage's "I Like Tuh"] "Make money, get turnt" was what we lived. We had to make money, and we got turnt. You can see we were all rocking out.

Andrea, something that runs through all of your films is people using their own experiences to transcend the grief or hardship they are dealing with—the reality of the situations around them.
Arnold:
Sounds like life. [Laughs]

Why is that something that you continue to return to as a filmmaker?
When I'm attracted to make something, it's not as simple as having an intellectual idea of what I want to do. It's usually some emotional connection, or an image. My image for this was a family of people from difficult backgrounds who found something together. Once I get going, it chooses me—I don't have a clear idea of why I'm making something, but it becomes obsessive, like something in my mind that I need to work out. I'm starting to write something now—I have an idea of what it's going to be, the image I'm starting with—and I can't leave it alone. It's a feeling.

If there's one thing that any of you want this film to teach when it comes to life in America, what would that thing be?
When I was in Austin for casting, I went to the homeless shelter there, and it was mostly young people in the shelter. The man working there said to me, "These people here are viewed as the throwaways of America." I love America, but it seems very divided in places. Capitalism is a tough way to live for some people. I was reading [Erich Fromm's] The Art of Loving, and there was a chapter saying that capitalism is incompatible with love, because love is about giving and capitalism is about taking. The one thing I'd like people to understand that no one is a throwaway.
Lombardi: We want to bring awareness that this life is real. This isn't just some made-up fiction.
Coalson: Life is what you make of it. When you're at your bottom, don't give up, because it could always get worse. Make the best of the worst situation.
Powers: How you see America in your eyes is how it is.
Cox: America's a journey. You can go all across America, and everything's different.

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