British filmmaker Andrea Arnold said yesterday that the “shocking” poverty she saw while travelling across America drove her to make her Cannes contender, and appreciate the relatively intact state of her own country’s social safety net.
American Honey stars maverick Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf and a cast of amateurs playing disadvantaged youths who shuttle from town to town selling magazine subscriptions in a country that has long abandoned print media for digital.
Arnold, 55, a former actress, won an Oscar for best short film in 2005 for Wasp and the jury prize at Cannes in 2009 for Fish Tank about a troubled teenager who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).
For her latest film, a road movie and love story that drew a mixed reception, she criss-crossed the United States to find fresh faces for her cast.
“I got to see an awful lot as I was travelling and I got quite upset about some of the towns I went to, some of the poverty I saw,” Arnold told reporters. “It seemed really different to me than in the UK because when people (in the US) don’t have money, they can’t get healthcare – things like going to the dentist. Those kind of things really shocked me.”
In American Honey, the “mag-crew” becomes a kind of stand-in family for its members, many of whom are fleeing homes wracked by sexual abuse and drug addiction.
They stay in cheap hotels and pass joints around in their van, watching prairie landscapes and strip malls race past the windows while Rihanna and hip-hop blast from the speakers.
LaBeouf plays the team’s charismatic recruiter, who tells his new sales “agents” that they need to learn to become the people their potential buyers want them to be.
“On some level the ‘magcrew’ on the bus selling is a small, potted version of the American Dream,” said Arnold, one of 21 filmmakers vying for the Palme d’Or top prize in Cannes. “They’re trying to make their version of the American Dream, they’re trying to make a living for themselves and they’re working hard at selling themselves which is what capitalism is all about really.”
LaBeouf, 29, said that he had spent time with young travelling sales crews in the Pacific Northwest in order to prepare for the role but explained that the huge disparity of wealth in the United States had come as no surprise to him.
“This is not new information to me, so it’s not like I discovered that.
“In Bakersfield, where my father lived for a stint, the only thing there is, is a prison.
“So everybody works at the prison,” he said.
“I’m part of that underclass. That’s where I come from, so I know about it.”
LaBeouf, who made his Cannes festival debut in 2008 with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is notorious for his volatile temper and somewhat bizarre stunts while he is in the spotlight.
But he was on his best behaviour in Cannes, gamely dancing to rap on the red carpet with the boisterous cast, blissed-out by their first time at the world’s top film festival.
LaBeouf’s love interest in the film is played by much-praised newcomer Sasha Lane, an 18-year-old Texan who Arnold plucked from obscurity on the beach during spring break.
“I knew that she was someone important and that she would take care of me and that this wasn’t going to be a porn scam,” Lane said, drawing a big laugh from Arnold.
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