CANNES, France — As one might have predicted would happen during a Cannes press conference, Shia LaBeouf is slightly annoyed with a question he’s been asked. The mercurial actor, who delivers an impressive performance as the leader of a crew of traveling salespeople in British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s new drama American Honey, is visibly addled.
"I don't think I get hired for sex scenes, I promise you. I don't know what is in the movie because I haven't seen it, but it sure wasn't filmed like a sex scene," LaBeouf said. "I'm not even sure what sex scene you're talking about. The moments I would imagine that, didn't feel like it. That's a long scene, that's a long scene. There is a lot going on."
The problem is that American Honey contains two specific sex scenes that are as hard to explain as anything else. Granted, they begin in a nonsexual context, as so many sex scenes do, but perhaps eventually seeing the film will jog LaBeouf’s memory a bit. The impressive thing about Honey is that those intimate moments are nowhere near the first thing moviegoers will remember after they see it.
Arnold, who won a Live Action Short Film Academy Award for 2003's Wasp, has until now kept her focus on UK-based features such as 2006’s Red Road and 2009’s Fish Tank (the latter was a breakout for Michael Fassbender). American Honey is her first film set in the US and centers on Star (recent discovery Sasha Lane), a struggling, unemployed 18-year-old looking to get out of a bad situation that involves a potentially abusive boyfriend and the fact that she’s somehow caring for someone else’s young kids.
Star's escape comes after she randomly meets the charismatic and flirty Jake (LaBeouf) in a supermarket parking lot, where he and his crew of traveling magazine salespeople are making a pit stop before they set out for a new city. Said pit stop also yields an impromptu party moment when Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s "We Found Love" starts playing while Jake and his crew are in the checkout line; the song returns later on in the film, whose mostly hip-hop soundtrack is a driving force.
Infatuated by Jake, Sasha joins his band of late-teens and very-early-20-somethings (almost all played by non-professional actors) looking to make ends meet and enjoy the spoils at the same time. The crew is actually led by the not-so-sophisticated, but incredibly resourceful, Krystal (a fantastic Riley Keough) who can’t figure out why she doesn’t quite trust the group's newest employee. As they travel the Midwest, Sasha learns how to sell her "story," falls hard for Jake, and schemes to earn enough to buy her own home somewhere.
Shot by Arnold’s longtime collaborator, acclaimed cinematographer Robbie Ryan, American Honey's aesthetic immediately brings to mind the work of filmmakers like Larry Clark and Terrence Malick. And, honestly, as more American critics and media see the film, that comparison will likely be made and again. During the Cannes press conference, however, Arnold strangely insisted on having little cinematic influences for her work.
"I take a lot of my inspiration based on the world that I’m exploring. I will go into the world and do a lot of research and immerse myself into the places and the people I'm going to make the film about," Arnold says. "Robbie and I, we might look at photographs and we don't say we are going to make it look like that film or that film. I try to go my own way and find my own voice."
Thanks to some very visceral and gutsy performances, the characters in American Honey provide a pretty accurate depiction of what many underprivileged young people face in America today. It’s definitely a snapshot of the many wandering souls looking to survive, but Arnold is passionate about telling their story.
"The America I grew up [with, it mostly came] from Hollywood — Little House on the Prairie, cowboys — it's a mix of that, my romanticized idea of it and a mixture of actual contemporary America that I saw when I did my trips [to research the film]," Arnold said. "I got to see an awful lot when I was traveling, and I got quite upset about some of the towns I went to. It seemed really different to me than in the UK, because people don't have money and they can't get health care and they can't go to the dentist and things like that. Those kind of things really shocked me."
Make no mistake, American Honey is going to generate a lot of buzz with the cinephile set thanks to Arnold and Ryan’s virtuoso filmmaking. But it will be intriguing to observe how the almost three-hour drama is received by the general public. Sometimes the mirror can reflect a little too much truth for audiences to bear.
Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling bring their comedy act to Cannes
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is earning rave reviews following its initial press screening at Cannes and, frankly, it’s justified. The 1970s-set action comedy or comedy thriller — take your pick — is another great buddy picture from the man who created Lethal Weapon and majorly boosted Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang 11 years ago. This time around, Black has hit the goldmine with the semi-unlikely pairing of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.
The picture begins with the mystery of a missing girl (The Leftovers’ Margaret Qualley); she appears to be at the center of a conspiracy that involves catalytic converters, a serial killer (Matt Bomer, channeling A View to A Kill’s Christopher Walken, but with a mole), and the justice department. Gosling plays Holland March, a private detective brought onto the case who doesn’t really have the stomach for the work, but loves the paycheck. Crowe is Jackson Healy, a character he describes as a "debt collector with aspirations" and March’s unlikely partner in the investigation.
Both actors accepted their roles within two days of each other, a decision that finally led to a greenlight for the project; Black had been working on different incarnations of The Nice Guys (including a television show at one point) for over a decade. Gosling, in particular, benefits from playing arguably the most likeable and self-deprecating character of his career. To hear him describe the opportunity, jumping on board was something of a no-brainer.
"It's a great script. It's a great role. It's great characters," Gosling says. "[It was fun] getting to work on a Shane Black film considering I grew up on them, so being in one was sort of surreal. It felt oddly comfortable. They are great, flawed characters, and there is a dramatic undertone to it that I think is rare in comedies."
Crowe, who can banter with almost anyone, told the audience at Cannes that he appreciates Black's willingness to let his actors add their own flavor to the proceedings.
"It took him many years to write the script, but he's not precious about it," Crowe said. "So, what's on the page, it's a map, but it's not necessarily a map of everything that he wants. And he has the ability, and not everybody does, to just trust in the fact that you understand the spirit of what he intended. Shane is willing and enthusiastic about letting us explore."
Of course, anytime Crowe and Gosling are on stage together, you can pretty much bet that hijinks will ensue. Before traveling to the festival, I had the opportunity to moderate a Q&A with the duo, as well as Black and producer Joel Silver. Crowe and Gosling were so funny it was hard to get a word in edgewise, and the evening was far better for it. So it was no surprise that Crowe and Gosling were quick to play with the global press a bit.
When Crowe was asked if he uses any specific acting method, such as Stanislavski, he predictably ran with it.
"I use the Russell Crowe method," Crowe said. "I have never been to drama school, man. I've never been to acting school. The only time I did any formal lessons, I studied classical texts for about three weeks. But I've been acting since I was 6 years old and over time, you get more and more efficient. Yeah, I don't even know what the Stanislavski method might be. I have no fucking idea. I don't care to know."
This caused Gosling, who has studied the famous acting teacher's approach, to break down laughing and cover his head on the podium.
"You just trashed 100 years of tradition," Black chimed in.
"Seriously it's not that complicated," Crowe shot back. "If you want to be an actor, work it out yourself. I love the Olivier quote, 'Learn your dialogue and don't bump into the furniture.'"
For what it's worth, the true speaker of that quote was Spencer Tracy, not Laurence Olivier.
And Gosling certainly had his own moments to charm the assembled press. A reporter had barely asked which of the two is the Batman when Gosling interjected, "I'm Batman, he's Robin."
As the room erupted into laughter, Crowe smiled and retorts, "Somebody asked what superhero characters Ryan and I would be. I said Fatman and Ribin."
And if you can figure out what a "Ribin" is, somebody at superhero-hungry Warner Bros. is waiting for your call.