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TIFF 2016: American Honey, Moonlight, and cinema’s slow embrace of extreme poverty

Some of the best films at this year’s fest are determined to explore a frequently ignored world.

A group of impoverished white youths hanging out in a parking lot.
Still from Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Todd VanDerWerff is at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the movies that will dominate our upcoming conversations and the awards season are playing. He will be filing daily dispatches on the ones he sees. For more information on TIFF and the film festival circuit, read our explainer.

Late in American Honey, British director Andrea Arnold’s American road trip epic (opening in limited release on September 30), the protagonist, an 18-year-old woman named Star, asks some kids for a drink.

She’s at their house to try to sell their parents magazines, but a cursory look at their environment — they live on a reservation in extreme rural South Dakota — suggests nobody has enough expendable income to buy a magazine subscription. So the least she can do is listen to the kids as they try to entertain her and get a drink of water.

One of them asks if she’d like some Mountain Dew, and she says yes. The kid opens the fridge to reveal a Pizza Hut box and a two-liter of Mountain Dew — and little else. It’s a reminder, for Star, of the desperate poverty she herself lived in back in Oklahoma, before she joined the magazine selling crew, exchanging one form of economic uncertainty for another.

But it’s also how the movie brings the audience full circle. American Honey is set in a United States we rarely see on film or TV, or in the pages of books. And what’s so gratifying about many of the best films at TIFF is how they’re determined to explore that world.

Poverty is a topic film and TV just don’t tackle

For the most part, movies and TV shows set in modern America exist somewhere in the middle of the country’s homogenous cultural elite. Their characters shop at upscale grocery stores and drive Priuses. They worry about getting their kids into elite preschools. They live in painstakingly cared-for homes or apartments.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of this as a way to tell stories. But when you don’t worry about those things, when you just worry about making enough money to survive, it can seem bizarre to watch a movie or TV show that’s about the afflictions of the comfortable. It doesn’t mean that pain isn’t real; it just means it can be harder for some to sympathize with it.

The entertainment industry has been more open to the perspectives of people of color and women in recent years, to be sure — though it still has a lot of ground to make up in this regard — but those perspectives almost always need to be filtered through an economically comfortable one as well. Or, put another way, the family on TV’s Black-ish (a terrific show) is probably only on TV because they aren’t struggling to pay the bills.

For the most part, the media we consume is presented to you by people who have some level of economic comfort, and it’s lousy at talking about poverty as anything other than a series of statistics. We talk about economic anxiety; we don’t really talk about how long-term unemployment or rural small towns being rotted out by meth affect the people who deal with them.

Poverty is a big, scary subject, and the decimation of local media organizations has only made it seem more shadowy, not less. And the arts, largely made by New Yorkers and Los Angelenos who are frequently at least a generation removed from such living situations, can seem at times to exist in a weird netherworld where everybody has enough money and the same basic cultural assumptions about various things.

Sasha Lane in American Honey
Sasha Lane stars in American Honey as Star.
Courtesy of TIFF

This, by far, has been the biggest complaint leveled against American Honey: Doesn’t its portrayal of poverty lean too heavily on stereotypes about rural, lower-class whites? Or, put less generously, are there people who really live like this?

But that’s what makes American Honey such a tremendous film. The world it’s set in does exist, and these people are out there, largely unrepresented in film and TV in quite this fashion. (If you see a rural person onscreen, they’re usually a comical yokel.)

Arnold and her actors get so much about this world precisely right, from the way that these kids wouldn’t precisely describe themselves as poor (even though they know they are), to how the only way they can get those who are economically better off than them to buy magazines is by presenting it as an act of charity. They even capture the harsh beauty of being young and having no cash but having a great time with your friends anyway.

This is the devastating undercurrent of American Honey. Nobody is out there to take care of these kids. They’re going to fall into the same cycles their parents did, because the best they can hope for is to scam a few bucks out of those who take pity on them. There’s no help coming, because nobody cares.

TIFF is full of glimpses of Americas we too rarely see onscreen

Thankfully, American Honey is far from the only film at TIFF to deal with this sort of back-breaking poverty.

There’s also I Called Him Morgan, a documentary that explores a different hidden America, in this case a world of economically disadvantaged black people, of adults taking high school courses, and of struggles with addiction. At its center is a couple — jazz musician Lee Morgan and his wife, Helen — who have risen from nothing to having something, and now grapple to hold onto it and each other.

Or the Swiss animated film Ma Vie de Courgette (French for “my life as a zucchini”), which doesn’t depict American poverty, but does depict a different country’s fraying social safety net, as a bunch of kids from troubled backgrounds are thrown into the same group home and learn to take care of each other. (It’s far more charming than that summary sounds.)

Then there’s The Bad Batch (from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night director Ana Lily Amirpour), a movie that didn’t really work for me, but one built around a world where the rich cast the poor out into the wilderness, where they begin to cannibalize each other.

Or there’s the emotionally taciturn world of Manchester by the Sea, where working-class guys struggle to talk about their feelings and mostly fail. In a similar working-class vein is Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, about a Paterson, New Jersey, bus driver who longs to be a poet.

Adam Driver drives a bus in Paterson.
Adam Driver plays a bus driver-slash-aspiring poet in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.
Image via TIFF

Look beyond the ravages of economic struggle, and you’ll find even more Americas rarely represented on film, like the photographer subject of the Errol Morris documentary The B-Side, who’s an outsider artist approaching retirement, or the quiet, history-making dignity of Jeff Nichols’s Loving, in which Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, just want to be able to live together with their kids in peace — and end up changing US law.

But the festival’s interest in these other Americas that aren’t always onscreen comes back, every time, to two releases from A24, one of the most reliable distributors out there: the aforementioned American Honey and Barry Jenkins’s tremendous gay coming-of-age story, Moonlight.

Moonlight shows us another face of poverty in America

Moonlight is mostly gaining attention for its story of a black gay man’s life at three different points in time. Jenkins’s depiction of how hard it can be for non-straight black men to live their lives openly is deeply sad and incredibly moving.

But Jenkins’s protagonist — Chiron — also lives in fairly extreme poverty in Miami. As a child, he creates a bubble bath using dish soap and has to fill the tub with hot water he gets from boiling some on the stove. His mother is a drug addict. The closest thing he has to a father figure is a drug dealer. Moonlight doesn’t have its characters bemoan their circumstances, but it’s always very clear about how they’re barely scraping by.

Still from Moonlight
Barry Jenkins’s tremendous Moonlight is set in a world of fairly extreme poverty in Miami.

That sort of poverty is always the wolf scratching at the door in Moonlight. Yes, there are plenty of happy moments, or at least ones where the characters seem carefree. But the world of Moonlight is a world of knife’s edges, both economic and otherwise. To make one false move is to fall off and plummet into an abyss that may prove inescapable.

Neither Jenkins nor American Honey director Arnold is steeped in the US studio system that often seems so blinkered. Arnold is from the UK, and Jenkins was previously known mostly for his shorts, before rising to prominence with this film. Both see things about America — and places and people in America — that so many other films miss.

There’s a tendency to talk about diversity in Hollywood solely in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation. And all of those are tremendously important. But there’s also a constant need for diverse points of view, for artists who can examine corners of the world that don’t always see themselves onscreen. And simply by talking about the very poor, about those who often slip through the cracks, American Honey and Moonlight have shown why diverse points of view often make for better films.

American Honey opens in theaters in limited release on September 30. Moonlight opens in theaters in limited release on October 21.