The travelling salesman has long been a staple of the American popular imagination, and prevalent in its culture with Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (1949) to Albert and David Masyles’s Direct Cinema classic Salesman (1969), about a man flogging bibles. Never before has the homeless aspects of the profession – which seems both outdated and topical at the same time – been highlighted more unabashedly than in Andrea Arnold’s controversial road movie American Honey (2016).
The film features a motley crew of youngsters roving the Midwest, trying to sell magazine subscriptions to innocuous suburban wives or hard drinking rednecks. They ride in a van, play the guitar, and jump around to motivational beats before being deploying on their mission each morning. A girl named Krystal keeps the group on a tight reign; the attractive Jake (Shia LeBeouf) is her best horse. Things change, when 18 year old Star joins the gang. She is a sensual, radically intuitive mixed race girl, free to go anywhere as a borderline homeless person can, or has to.
Star stirs up the brigade’s routines. Her sales methods are exploitative and risky, and her relationship with Jake is as destructive as it is fiercely erotic. Since its premiere at Cannes Film Festival this year American Honey has had critics fuming: many see it as a self indulgent, aimless extravaganza about young, whackily glamorous people on a road to nowhere. But Andrea Arnold, previously responsible for a racially reflective adaptation of Wuthering Heights in 2011, gets to the core of contemporary juvenile experience – in a country that relegates many people like Star to the margins. Their drifting desires are the fuel American Honey runs on.
In UK theatres 14 October.