New American Realism

In spring 2009, film critics A.O. Scott and Richard Brody had a bit of a spat over “realism” in independent cinema. Scott’s argument is that there’s a trend in American Great Recession-era indies of films that:

So thus Scott tacks on another Neo to describe what he was seeing, a Neo-Neo Realist cinema. Brody mostly disputes Scott’s history. Key to Brody’s argument are the following points:

This categorization of cinema seems to have gone dead until Joseph Pomp’s 2017 piece in the LA Review of Books, that names the style linking movies like the Safdie’s Good Time and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as “Neon-Neo Realism,” films that,

[…] address sociopolitical issues through the prism of place-based character studies, but with a hard-hitting style that feels less akin to the European art-house tradition than to hip-hop music videos.

Since publication, we probably should add Uncut Gems, The Florida Project, maybe Waves, Honey Boy or anything else in the A24 catalog.

This is all well and good, but Neon-Neo Realism borrows as much from Roberto Rossellini as it does from Harmony Korine. That is, the American traditions from which it draws are not the same homespun and naturalistic styles that surface in movies like Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008).

Since the Great Recession, Reichardt has gone on to make several more films, like 2013’s Night Moves. Jeff Nichols has made Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012). Debra Granik had Winter’s Bone (2010) and Leave No Trace (2018). If you permit me to include period pieces: Paul Dano’s Wildlife (2018).

What unites this list of films is that they are not neon-soaked and stylized dramas overflowing with sultry synthesizes and digital cinematography. Instead, what unites them are,

The late 19th/early 20th century style of American Realism share much in common – the sense of place of Steinbeck, the natural language of Twain, Jacob Riis’ clear and observational photography of the poor, and its echos in Ashcan school painting. Yet here there was also romance, reverence of nature in George Bellow’s paintings and Jack London’s writing, an American pastoralism that we see today in films like Reichardt’s First Cow (2020).

So we find ourselves naming a style through addition: let’s shepherd the works of Reichardt, Granik, and Nichols and others under the name New American Realism.

Letterboxd list of films mentioned.