Political cinema frequently conjures the aesthetic and narrative tradition of social realism, while utopia is a concept often associated with genres that utilise fantastical excess to create an overwhelming affect. This article examines how two contemporary films utilise elements of utopia alongside social realism in order to juxtapose the neoliberal capitalist dystopia in which they are set. In American Honey (2016), Andrea Arnold represents the transcendent visual and aural sensory experiences of the film’s youthful protagonist in order to produce tension with the ruthless and dehumanising logic of capitalism that the film’s narrative – about a group of young people with few career prospects selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door – depicts. Using a similar technique, The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017) projects a child’s fantasy to contrast with the grim reality of a dilapidated motel located near the ultimate cultural and commercial fantasy of Disney World.

A comparative analysis of the two films exemplifies the potential for filmmakers to use utopia as an, albeit unconventional, means of delivering political commentary. In each film, deeply embodied ecstatic subjectivity transcends the environmental conditions that the characters inhabit, demonstrating an affective utopia that contrasts not only with the realities of neoliberalist capitalism but also with the constructed, commercialised hyperreality of American myth. In this way, the films offer personal utopian affective experience as more than, and in opposition to, simplistic mass cultural escapism. Instead utopia functions as another tool in the social realist filmmaker’s extensive formal arsenal to not only affectively compensate for what capitalism fails to provide, as Richard Dyer theorises utopia1, but also to highlight this failing.

From Social Realism to Utopia (and Back Again)

Julia Hallam and Margaret Marshment provide a definition of social realism that tends to prevail in both popular and academic understandings:

Films that aim to show the effects of environmental factors on the development of character through depictions that emphasise the relationship between location and identity… social realism tend to be associated with an observational style of camerawork that emphasises situations and events and an episodic narrative structure, creating ‘kitchen sink’ dramas and ‘gritty’ character studies of the underbelly of urban life.2

This “gritty social realism” is associated particularly with the British New Wave of 1959-1963, as well as the subsequent work of prominent British filmmakers Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Stephen Frears.3 Scholars such as David Forrest have, however, challenged such a narrow aesthetic parameter for the mode of filmmaking, arguing that while the emphasis on the relationship between the individual and the environment is a structuring feature of social realism, the expression of this relationship involves the deployment of “an ever-increasing palate of poetic and artistic potentials”.4 For Forrest, social realism does not sacrifice content for form, but rather privileges both.5 The lack of attention to formal features of social realist films can lead to a limited understanding of the full richness of their depiction of experience. Forrest analyses, for example, the use of sound and editing in In Two Minds (Ken Loach, 1967) in which interviews with a psychiatrist organise a “temporally unstable narrative” that parallels the mental health problems of the film’s protagonist.6 Sarah Street makes a similar argument that the role of colour in exploring social realist themes and environments has been under-analysed in British films of the 1950s and 1960s because social realism has been primarily associated with black and white films from this period.7 Street demonstrates how social realist directors used experimentation with colour to document “the changing social landscape of Britain’s cities”.8 Colour was frequently used to provide contrast between dreary urban cities and interiors and elements of impressionism, as in The Family Way (John and Roy Boulting, 1966), in which elements of colour “connote sexuality, escapism and leisure” amidst a repressive social and physical environment.9

If these examples of social realist cinema thus utilise formal features to engage with the world that the characters inhabit in order to provide insights into social conditions and to critique these conditions, the utopian cinema would appear to be their binary opposite. In his influential 1977 article “Entertainment and Utopia” Dyer argued that entertainment does not present utopian social models but rather

utopianism is contained in the feeling it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organised. It thus works at the level of sensibility, by which I mean an affective code that is characteristic of, and largely specific to, a given mode of cultural production.10

Dyer uses musicals as examples to explain how the music numbers generate a feeling of utopia through their abundance of qualities that may be seen to be lacking in society, producing structures of feeling that respond to tensions, lack, gaps or inadequacies.11 In this way, capitalist entertainment proposes itself as an alternative to the problems of capitalism.12 Dyer claims that musical numbers replace scarcity with abundance and transform exhaustion and urban alienation with dance numbers that blend work and play.13 The dreariness of modern life is countered with the utopian solution of intensity of energy and affect in the musical number.14 Similarly fragmentation is solved by a feeling of all-togetherness and community activity in the group dance number.15 These numbers then do not offer narrative or rational solutions to problems, but instead produce an affect that seems to eclipse them.16

While social realism confronts capitalism head-on with an urgency that demands action, Dyer conceptualises entertainment as a transmutation of capitalism into pleasurable affect.17 In the examples of American Honey and The Florida Project these two seemingly incompatible approaches find a fragile synthesis. Each film utilises a subjective sensory overload to produce a feeling of utopia, which is creatively deployed to juxtapose the socio-economic settings that the characters inhabit in line with social realist strategies.

Dancing to Transcendence in American Honey

On initial inspection, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a film about those left outside the capitalist, neoliberal American dream. The film opens with its 18-year-old protagonist, Star, played by the then non-actor Sasha Lane, dumpster diving for a discarded chicken with two children, not her own, in tow. By chance she meets Jake (Shia LaBoeuf) who invites her to come and work for a company selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door as part of a team managed by the ruthless Crystal (Riley Keough). Star agrees to do so and travels across America making money any way she can with a group of lively and volatile young people. The film’s use of mostly unknown or non-actors, on-location shooting and hand-held camera align it with traditions of neo-realism, but the film simultaneously functions as a complex negotiation of the utopian ethos of two genres: the road movie and the musical. In constructing her critique of contemporary America, Andrea Arnold invokes, whilst often re-imagining, the transcendent journey from the road movie and the group musical number from the musical, emphasising both the tension and synergy between these two idealised sites of American mythology and the logics and structures of capitalism. In this way contemporary America collides and blends with mythological—and cinematic—America. Arnold has discussed how the film reflects both her personal experience of America and of the road movies and westerns that mythologize it.18 We might thus read the film as both an ecstatic utopian outpouring and as a prescient and rich example of indirect political commentary.

Such an approach is consistent with Arnold’s previous work, which is characterised by “uncompromising intensity and visceral sensuousness”.19  Her  adaptation of the English literary classic Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, 2011) for example emphasized the earthiness, fierceness and sexual intensity of the romantic relationship at its centre, often placing the film’s young protagonists on the ground in the dirt and amongst the reeds so that their energy and emotion seems to flow both in to and from their environment. In American Honey there is likewise an intense focus on Star’s subjective and sensuous experience of travelling through America. Her focus on the sensory and the psychological does not, however, negate a strong sense of political purpose. In this – her first film to be set in the United States – Arnold’s characteristic intoxicating sensory expression transcends the grim social reality that the characters inhabit, but it is also filtered through the conventions of the road movie and the musical, which are both genres that invoke utopia through their use of affective embodiment.

The road movie offers a sense of utopia in its visions of escape from the constraints and rules of everyday concerns and returning to the mythical wild.20  In the road movie narrative is often “open-ended, rambling,” focusing on “frustrated, often desperate characters lighting out for something better, someplace else.”21 The destination is less important than the experience of the journey; in this way the road movie privileges experience over goals.  In perhaps the most seminal road movie, Easy Rider (Denis Hopper, 1969), two motorcyclists travel across the United States after completing a drug deal in Mexico to reach New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Set to a pulsating rock’n’roll soundtrack, the film follows the two men as they embrace their countercultural identities, get high in search of spiritual transcendence and visit numerous people and communities practicing alternative ‘off the grid’ lifestyles. This lifestyle finally proves unsustainable in modern society as both motorcyclists end up dying in a blaze of flames, after being abruptly shot by men in a passing pickup truck. Despite its pessimistic ending, the film has already articulated its utopian fantasy of complete personal freedom.

While in Easy Rider our heroes are outsiders from society because of their countercultural values, the young people who populate American Honey are outsiders due to social class. The journey they undertake in the film is repeatedly defined in terms of a money-making endeavour. When Star meets salesman Jake, who later also becomes her lover, he is dressed in a white shirt, black pants and suspenders with pens in his front pocket, creating a jarring contrast with his long ponytail and piercings. Star complements his outfit, musing “you look like…” before trailing off. Jake interjects and, as if predicting the future events of the film’s year of release, answers “Donald Trump.” Star says that she was going to suggest that he looked like a gangster. This exchange demonstrates Jake’s capitalist aspirations towards becoming a businessman, whilst also highlighting his failure to convincingly embody this persona. When Jake asks Star to join him as a salesperson, he describes this chance as a “business opportunity.” Star meets the boss, Crystal, who repeatedly emphasises that Star’s only purpose is financial and asking her to repeat the goal of the group: “to make money”. Crystal boasts that she has previously left girls behind and threatens to abandon Star to the mountain lions if she does not sell enough or misses her pick-up time.

Jake, dressed as a businessman

Yet Star’s own subjective experience of her journey, and the viewer’s affective experience through her, negates the purely economic purpose or goal impressed upon her by Crystal, allowing Star her to transcend her role as an interchangeable and expendable employee and highlighting the tension in the film between social dystopia and sensory utopia. As Neil Archer notes the road movie lends itself to conveying subjective experience and personal growth because it “is the narrative cinematic approximation of travel and evokes a close fit between what protagonists see and experience and our own pleasurable experience of the trip.”22 Star frequently stops to stare up at the sky or look at the road around her, and Arnold’s handhold camera follows her gaze, sticking closely to Star. Furthermore we follow her on a number of excursions and exchanges, which deviate from the regimented sales targets and times set by Crystal. In interviews and promotional materials, Arnold has highlighted how her young cast similarly experienced a communal road trip, in which they bonded.23 Considering the film from a paratextual angle, not only does Star’s subjective experience negate the capitalist purpose of the journey, but the young non-actors were also seemingly able to participate in an authentic journey that transcended their roles as hired actors in the production of a film. Their journey, like Star’s, was thus both part of a commercial endeavour and transcended that endeavour.

Throughout the film, Star’s experience of nature is likewise in direct contrast to her moneymaking mission. Patrick Brereton reminds us that in the road movie “closure and sublime spectacle are foregrounded to help promote deep ecological expressions of ‘oneness with nature.’”24 Arnold’s camera lingers over the landscapes where Star pauses to reflect, including bare canyons and undisturbed fields, which juxtapose the functional stream of man-made fast food signs that the group encounter when driving into a city populated with people from lower socio-economic groups or, as Crystal puts it, “poor people like you.” Star’s “oneness with nature” is further demonstrated by the fact that she (and the viewer) is constantly observing animals, such as insects scurrying around, birds flying above and dogs roaming around motels. In several sequences Star stops to free trapped animals, including a bee in a swimming pool and the tortoise she returns to the water before jumping in herself near the very end of the film. The image of trapped animals is an important one in the film as a whole: after riding for a while with a sympathetic trucker, Star stars at a truck full of cows and we see a quick glance of the cows’ eyes through the slats of the truck. These are animals trapped and appropriated into a capitalist system of production and exchange. This sequence suggests an association between the cows with the salespeople, who are also packed into over-filled claustrophobic vans as they travel, in contrast to the boss Crystal who rides in a wide-open convertible.

In American Honey, unprocessed nature offers a sort of sublime escapism and purity. Music and dance similarly offer this kind of heightened, organic experience. The young salespeople regularly sing along to and dance to a catalogue of, mostly local hip hop, tracks. These were, according to interviews, predominantly recommended by the non-actors and, apart from two significant uses of Rihanna tracks, are relatively little known, thus “the soundtrack seems to exist symbiotically with the characters and the landscape they’re passing through.”25 The film contains what Amy Herzog has described as “musical moments.”26 These moments are often considerably less polished than traditional musical numbers, sometimes lacking synchronisation or elaborate choreography, but structure space and subjectivity around musical experience.27 Herzog suggests that these moments in what she terms “marginal musicals” in fact puncture narrative and temporality in ways that can be especially subversive precisely because they are not ushered in by smooth transitions; these musical numbers are intentionally awkward and messy, yet their glitches or imperfections make them feel all the more transgressive.28 In American Honey the shambolic and messy musical interludes are integral to the film precisely because they unite the characters but do not erase the differences, division and individuality of the characters, nor the often-dire spaces in which they are set.29

Even staged on such a small scale, the musical moments express a sense of spontaneous energy, freedom and community that resonate with Richard Dyer’s conceptualisation of the musical number as utopian solution. Dyer considers “the essential contradiction” in the musical to be that between the musical numbers and the narrative30 and this is a tension that we see played out in American Honey. For example, in one memorable sequence Star emerges from a motel into the car park and, at first hesitantly, begins to join in with an impromptu singalong and non-synchronised dance to the lively rap song “Choices (Yup)” by E-40 prior to an official crew meeting. In this sequence a sense of community and inclusion is produced as Star begins to join in with the crew’s song, creating a feeling of affection and togetherness, as well as confidence and bravado. In reality, the crew is competing against one another, hoping not to end up participating in the ‘losers night’ where the two lowest earning salespeople must fight one another. Furthermore, the feeling of energy and distinctive individuality of the dancers transforms the empty carpark of an utterly generic motel – one of many that we see in the film – filling this non-space. The dance is abruptly curtailed and disrupted when Crystal arrives and begins the business part of the meeting. Having delivered her message she leads them in a motivational chant, as if to harness this sense of communal feeling and redirect it towards capitalist goals, demonstrating both the tension and the synergy between the affect produced by the music number and capitalism. Despite this, the spontaneous outpouring of community nevertheless retains a sense of utopia that is replicated in the many group singalongs in the film. The abundance of energy and feeling in these numbers represents a sense of freedom within containment, especially in the numerous sequences singing in the cramped van, and of community or affinity in opposition to the competitive nature of capitalism.

The cowboys offer Star money

American Honey is a film in which the mythology of America comes face to face with its current form. Upon arriving in Kansas and remarking on the many tall buildings, one of the young people exclaims that Superman lives here. Later in the film, Star is scooped up by a group of modern-day aging cowboys riding a white car, complete with white hats, who appear to be coming to her rescue. These figures have a seedy undertone, however, as they offer to pay Star a considerable amount in magazine subscriptions to come back with them and have some beers and steaks in their extravagant, modern home with a pool, while their horses stand ignored by the cowboys in the adjacent field. Throughout all of this, though, the concept of an American dream persists. Dreams are directly discussed in a sequence in which, subverting audience expectations, Star has a positive encounter with a truck driver, where they share their hopes for the future. When the truck driver asks Star what her dream is, Star is initially taken aback, saying that she has never been asked that before. After some thought she answers that her dream would be to have her “own place” (she then qualifies saying she wants her own trailer) somewhere with big trees and many children. Unlike wannabe businessman and Trump stand-in, Jake, Star’s dream is simple and modest. She holds on to her piece of utopia, even amidst the dystopia that she finds herself in.

Between motels and theme parks: The Florida Project

In the same manner that mythic America buts up against contemporary American reality in American Honey, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project depicts an encounter between the hyperreality of Florida’s tourist attractions and the squalid existence of a section of its inhabitants. The film is told primarily through the eyes of its child protagonist, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives with her unemployed single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a room in the purple-painted, castle-like ‘Magic Castle’ motel. The motel is located across a series of carparks and fields from Disney World, but occupies an entirely different socio-economic space. When a tourist couple accidentally make a booking here instead of at the Magic Kingdom, they describe it as a welfare motel, underscoring the striking contrast between this place and the luxury hotels on site at Disney World. The inhabitants of the Magic Castle are long-term tenants often packing whole families into a single motel room. Despite this situation, Moonee  enjoys a dynamic, vibrant existence, running wild and causing havoc with her friends from the motel and a girl from a neighbouring motel, Jancey (Valeria Cotto). This carefree abandon is only curtailed when her mother is caught soliciting customers online in a desperate attempt to pay the rent via prostitution. Like American Honey, the cast is largely populated with unknown actors and the film makes use of handheld cameras and almost exclusively diegetic soundtrack. Despite this affinity with both American independent filmmaking and social realism, utopia is a powerful force in the film. The film presents subjective experience as a utopian engine and undercuts the commercialised fantasy of Disney World.

A utopian Florida

The carparks that the children roam through in the film are populated with hyperreal signifiers of the image of Florida, which produce an uncanny juxtaposition with the dilapidated motels, empty unkept fields and abandoned condos that constitute the children’s playground. Soon after the audience is introduced to the children, they are shown sitting outside in front of a painting of a boy offering a girl an orange as a symbol of Florida’s citrus exports with the words “Take Some Home” and the greeting “Welcome to Florida.” This painting depicts a mythic utopian image of a caring, healthy and productive state that is consistently undercut by the poverty experienced by the characters. Similarly the children run past the “Orange World” store with its bulbous giant orange, which sits in a strange series of cartoon-like oversized buildings including the Disney gift shops adorned with huge wizards and mermaids. The buildings function as classic simulacra, embodiments not of any real-life origin but of the images associated with Florida.31 Jean Baudrillard wrote of Disney Land that it is an obviously fake environment whose main purpose is to provide Americans with the illusory belief that the surrounding areas are real “when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.”32. In The Florida Project Sean Baker employs Disney World somewhat differently to function as a knowing shorthand for a fantasy of a clean, problem-free America that does not exist, yet is embodied by all the structures that surround the characters. Baker explicitly places the Disney fantasy alongside the desperate situation of the characters in a sequence in which Halley discusses her lack of employment with a case worker, swearing at the woman in the foreground on the right of the frame while Moonee plays with a princess doll in the back half of the frame on the left. The disparity between the mythology of entertainment and reality of American society are visually represented by the framing.

The looming Disney-themed gift shops of The Florida Project

The film exposes the Disney fantasy as a false promise of utopia, yet nevertheless foregrounds imagination as a form of transcendence. In the final sequence, Moonee is distraught because child services have arrived to remove her from her mother’s care. She runs off and knocks on the door of Jancey’s room before breaking down in front of her. Jancey takes her hand and the film indicates through the dramatic shift in music and visual style that we have entered a fantasy sequence. For the first time since the opening credits, non-diegetic music replaces naturalistic sound, heralding a flight into imagination. In first-person perspective the camera depicts the children hurtling across the spaces in which they play and effortlessly crossing into Disney World itself, thus using a fluid handheld camera to imagine a world in which the barriers enclosing private commercial spaces are broken down and producing a dynamic rush for the audience. The camera passes a family standing posing for a selfie and heads towards the castle. This sequence represents a triumph of the imagination and of the two girls’ friendship, but also underscores the lack of real options for Moonee beyond retreating into a child’s fantasy in which she is allowed into the kingdom.

The film also suggests that Disney does not have a monopoly on this imaginative utopia: for the children, the motel and its surroundings can indeed be utopian through their transcendent imaginations and experience of them. Moonee shows Jancey some cows and tells her that she has taken her on safari; for the children, utopia exists not in the form of paid entertainment but in the joy and energy that they bring to their surroundings and in their collective imagination. As with the dancing in the car in American Honey, the children’s constant movement along the balconies of the motel and through the carparks and fields defies their social-economic and physical confinement, while simultaneously emphasizing these constraints via their transcendence.

Conclusion: Hope and Critique

American Honey and The Florida Project project an ‘organic’ utopia, born out of a sense of community and a relationship with the natural world in the former and out of a child’s imagination in the latter, to emphasise what a capitalist economy fails to offer the protagonists.

Both films reimagine and undermine the conventional construction of utopia in the popular imaginary, thus asserting their social realist roots. They each reference mediated images of false utopias (such as the Western mythology of a world full of cowboy saviours dressed in white in American Honey and the hyperreality of Disney iconography in The Florida Project) that fall short of offering viable solutions for the films’ characters. Yet the films do not disavow utopian impulses; instead utopia comes directly from the characters’ subjectivities – the fantasy playground of Moonee and her friends in The Florida Project and the sensual, transformative journey of Star in American Honey – which provide a source of release and an authenticity of feeling that is paradoxically both affectively realist and a form of transcendence of economic reality. It is in this paradox that the films productively utilise utopian affect to complicate the relationship between the characters and their environment, highlighting both the affective force of individual sensation and the inability of neoliberal capitalist systems to account for or assign value to this experience.

This complex representation of utopia gives both films a sense of hope without invalidating their potency as socio-political critique. In each case, the film presents – to use Dyer’s words – “what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organised”33 yet significantly this utopian feeling works not to transmute real conditions into affective pleasure and thus erase them, but rather through a direct juxtaposition of this feeling within a seemingly hopeless environment in the service of social realist goals.

This article has been peer reviewed.

Endnotes:

  1. Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Hollywood Musicals, The Film Reader, ed. Steven Cohan (London & New York: Routledge, 2002, 26)
  2. Julia Hallam and Margaret Marshment, Realism and Popular Cinema (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 184.
  3. Philip Mosley, The Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers: Responsible Realism (London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2013), p. 1.
  4. David Forrest, Social Realism: Art, Nationhood and Politics (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), p. 3.
  5. Forrest, p. 9.
  6. Forrest, p. 88.
  7. Sarah Street, “The Colour of Social Realism,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 15.4 (2018): p. 469.
  8. Street, p. 489.
  9. Street, p. 482-483.
  10. Dyer, p. 20.
  11. Dyer, p. 26.
  12. Dyer, p. 23.
  13. Dyer, p. 26.
  14. Dyer, p. 26.
  15. Dyer, p. 26.
  16. Dyer, p.26.
  17. Dyer, p. 26.
  18. Sean O’Hagan, “Interview Andrea Arnold: ‘I always aim to get to the belly of a place,’” The Guardian, last edited 9 October 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/09/andrea-arnold-interview-american-honey-shia-labeouf-sasha-lane.
  19. Michael Lawrence, “Introduction,” Journal of British Film and Television 13.1 (2016): p. 156.) Arnold, who has directed four feature films at time of writing, is known for her attention to working class characters, but also for her focus on sensory experience. Jonathan Murray describes a number of features of Arnold’s films that distinguish her from British social realist traditions: “These include her typical privileging of the individual and psychological over the collective and social, her pronounced interest in challenging binary oppositions between ideas of the human and the animal, and her highly developed awareness and expressive use of audiovisual form and style.”[20. Jonathan Murray, “Red Roads from Realism: Theorising Relationships between Technique and Theme in the Cinema of Andrea Arnold,” Journal of British Film and Television 13.1 (2016): p. 195.
  20. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, “Introduction,” in The Road Movie Book, eds. Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 1-3.
  21. David Laderman, Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), p. 2.
  22. Neil Archer, The French Road Movie: Space, Mobility, Identity (New York and Oxford: Berghan Books, 2013), p. 39.
  23. Hagan.
  24. Pat Brereton, Hollywood Utopia: Ecology in Contemporary American Cinema (Bristol and Portland: Intellect Books, 2005), p. 91.
  25. Kevin Lincoln, “American Honey’s Song Choices Are On the Nose, And That’s The Point,” Vulture, 4 October 2016, https://www.vulture.com/2016/09/american-honey-soundtrack-andrea-arnold-we-found-love.html.
  26. Amy Herzog, Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same: The Musical Moment in Film (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 2.
  27. Herzog, p. 3-8.
  28. Herzog, p. 3-4.
  29. The author must acknowledge Amy Herzog for her fantastic analysis of the supermarket scene in American Honey as a musical moment in her keynote address “The Musical Moment, Counter-Memory and Oblivion” at When the Music Takes Over: Musical Numbers in Film and Television, 8 March 2018, University of Salzburg, Austria.
  30. Dyer, p. 23.
  31. Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988), p. 166.
  32. Baudrillard, 172
  33. Dyer, p. 20.