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To fill the void left by the absence of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for the next two weeks, this column will be dedicated to films that premiered at the festival over the course of seven decades.
When Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” world premiered May 15, 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival, buzz for the coming-of-age drama was so strong that IndieWire named the film an instant frontrunner to win the Palme d’Or. (Alas, it won the Jury Prize). Rave reactions for Sasha Lane’s acting debut poured in at such an overwhelming rate that it became common knowledge among cinephiles that an instant star had been born. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn called Lane’s performance “a star-making turn,” while Variety hailed the actress as a “magnetizing newcomer” and The Hollywood Reporter called her a “luminous new talent.”
As it turns out, a star was not born at Cannes. Four years after “American Honey” rocked the Croissete, Sasha Lane is still waiting for her Hollywood breakthrough. “American Honey” is all the proof she needs that it still needs to happen.
The movie, now streaming on Netflix, stars Lane as an aimless Oklahoma teenager named Star who finds purpose in life after befriending a group of drifters and traveling across the midwest with them. Star falls in love with a bad boy (Shia LaBeouf) and makes an enemy of the group’s leader (Riley Keough), all while discovering her own sense of identity. One of Arnold’s key sequences in the film is when Star first discovers the reckless teenagers who will soon become her makeshift family. Star is at a local Kmart when the teens breakout in a ruckus while dancing to Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” The way Star gazes upon the teens, most notably LaBeouf’s Jake, is not unlike the way moviegoers gaze upon Lane in her acting debut: It starts with intrigue and ends up as an overpowering seductive force.
Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan film the bulk of “American Honey” in close-ups of Lane’s face, a recurring image made more focused because of the movie’s 4:3 aspect ratio. For long stretches of the film’s 163-minute running time, the camera lingers on Star for minutes on end as she observes her surroundings or listens to music in the backseat of a van. It’s a testament to Lane that “American Honey” never lags, and only gets richer and more involving the more the camera studies her face. It’s a performance so rich in vulnerability and clear in telegraphing the awakening of her identity that it feels like a special effect. Whether it’s the dangerous allure Star feels while wooing rich businessman into giving her money or the torment raging inside of her as Jake meddles with her heart, Lane makes every emotion feel present, urgent, and spontaneously alive.
Lane’s performance is such a towering accomplishment that her career should have launched overnight. The actress deserves to be a star, or at least have a shot at a major Hollywood star turn. Lane hasn’t surfaced in a major role since “American Honey,” which says more about the current Hollywood landscape than anything else. There remains a serious shortage of studio projects centered on women of color as the leads, and Lane isn’t alone here: Emayatzy Corinealdi (“Middle of Nowhere”) and Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) are among the other actresses of color who dominated buzz at festivals and are still waiting for their big Hollywood moment.
By comparison, Jennifer Lawrence leveraged her “Winter’s Bone” festival breakout into Hollywood stardom with “X-Men” and “The Hunger Games.” Timothée Chalamet went from “Call Me By Your Name” Sundance breakthrough to landing the lead in “Dune” after a string of prestige dramas like “Beautiful Boy” and “The King.” Both Lawrence and Chalamet landed their studio leading roles within two years of their festival breakouts. Lane is still waiting for hers four years after “American Honey.” Sure, Lane didn’t land the Oscar recognition that Lawrence or Chalamet did with their crossover turns, but she wasn’t MIA from awards season, either. Lane earned nominations from the Indie Spirit Awards, the Gotham Awards, and the British Indie Film Awards for her work in “American Honey” (and that’s saying nothing of the uphill battle actors of color face in being nominated by the Academy).
Instead of booking major studio productions, Lane followed “American Honey” with supporting roles in low-profile Sundance premieres “Hearts Beat Loud” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” which won the Grand Jury Prize but fizzled in theaters. The actress would go on to land a supporting role in Lionsgate’s 2019 “Hellboy” reboot, but as IndieWire’s Eric Kohn observed in his review: “She ought to lead an action vehicle of her own” rather than getting relegated to a thankless part in someone else’s entourage.
Fortunately, Lane’s star turn could be arriving in the future without any help from a major Hollywood studio movie. The actress has two high profile television gigs in the pipeline: She’s playing the lead in Amazon’s “Utopia,” a series from “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn that was once set for HBO and David Fincher, and she’s reportedly landed a supporting role in “Loki” on Disney+. These projects could bring Lane one step closer to her studio lead debut, but her astonishing work in “American Honey” should’ve been enough to seal the deal.
“American Honey” is currently streaming on Netflix.