Regardless of your opinions about the television show Girls — and God knows you, an internet-reading person, certainly have some — there’s one thing we can all agree on: Lena Dunham’s HBO half-hour, airing its sixth and final season next year, has changed the cultural benchmark for what registers as “shocking” with regard to depictions of young, professional, middle-to-upper class women (and men). Over 52 episodes, Girls has consistently depicted scenes of graphic sex, drug use, and other impulsive misadventures, including Marnie receiving spirited anilingus, Shoshanna smoking crack, and Charlie re-creating Panic in Needle Park for the millennial set. (Didn’t you know? It’s federal law that within a paragraph of talking about Girls, you have to use the word “millennial.”)
Just as Girls iterated on movies and shows that covered similar ground before it — including and especially Larry Clark’s Kids, the touchstone for this sort of New York City drugs-and-sex expressionism — Dunham’s show now precedes two movies being released this month, White Girl and American Honey, that could (and will) be categorized as “shocking looks at how Kids in America are doing these days.” While the two films ply different tones and subject matter than Girls, they also seem to indicate something of a sea change: Girls has shown at great length the extent to which privileged 20-somethings can degrade themselves, as well as the idiosyncrasies of living in a New York City that is at once, for certain demographics, both dream and nightmare — and it’s sprung up a cottage industry of think pieces in the process, including academic analysis. Now, for the youth-oriented narratives following in its wake, the goal line has moved. It’s no longer shocking to just put teenagers having sex and doing drugs onscreen, a thing that we’ve accepted in entertainment as a matter of course. What White Girl and American Honey reveal is that pulling back the curtain on modern youth is a matter of who you show, not what.
While much as has been made about the shrinking gap between what constitutes television and film, a TV series still unfolds over the course of many hours, rather than just 90 to 150 minutes. A show is a story you live with, filled with characters you get used to, whereas a movie can be a punch in the face. And White Girl, the debut feature from filmmaker Elizabeth Wood, hits very hard. Out this weekend in select theaters, White Girl will soon reach Netflix (which acquired it at Sundance), where it can horrify parents of teenagers worldwide. It stars Homeland’s Morgan Saylor as Leah, a young college student from Oklahoma City with a summer internship in New York at a hip magazine; she’s also a cocaine vacuum who has to sell whatever she doesn’t snort of her drug-dealer boyfriend’s supply in order to get him out of jail.
In that regard, White Girl’s title works twofold, spending as much time on the snowy narcotic as it does with its feral pseudo-protagonist, a young Caucasian woman exploring the limits of her privilege in gentrifying Queens. Stylish, visceral, and at times very difficult to watch, White Girl loves the motif of reflections, because they provide a means for its characters to catch a rare glimpse of how deranged they’re behaving; otherwise, the movie’s lack of meditation on the depths of its self-destruction is either bold or pathological, depending on how you feel about a world in which everyone is basically trying to drug themselves to death. What conscience it does have is possessed entirely by the film’s Hispanic characters, who watch with amusement and then alarm as white consumption and influence makes its way first into their neighborhood, and then into their lives.
For obvious reasons, it’s impossible not to grade White Girl along the Girls curve — it takes place in New York City, it’s about drugs and sex as much as it is the young people indulging, and Leah’s magazine makes the offices of early-2000s Vice look like Foreign Policy. Ten years ago, White Girl would’ve seemed like a comet that came streaking out of the sky and through the center of your head. Today, it’s hard not to see White Girl’s vision of white culture as, at least in part, a stylistic response to the world created by Girls, which, despite its flowing tapestry of weird sex and substance abuse, is still considered a comedy. Nothing about White Girl is funny. Even if you’ve seen its sins before, the impact is in watching them dialed up to such loud volume, culminating with (uncomfortable spoiler ahead) a drunken Leah, her eyes loose like marbles and her body slack as a doll’s, getting raped by her lawyer, who isn’t threatening until, very much, he is — one of White Girl’s most direct callbacks to Kids. It’s not so much shocking as is it simply excruciating.
Where White Girl succeeds, though, is in its depiction of the culture that Leah forces herself into, embodied in the minorities at once puzzled by, disgusted with, and trying to take advantage of white decadence. While the white people in the movie shift between objects of satire and revulsion, the young Hispanic characters are sympathetic and fully realized, especially Leah’s tragic boyfriend, Blue, played with unlimited charisma by Brian Marc. In their stories, White Girl finds newness, ground that feels untrammeled; it makes the very clear point that Leah’s open-mindedness, so to speak, never amounts to more than tourism, and that her whiteness is still dangerous.
American Honey, which debuts later in September, similarly delves into less-discussed subsets of youth culture. Its director Andrea Arnold made her nearly three-hour-long opus with mainly first-time actors, including its brilliant lead, Sasha Lane. And the movie, which follows one of the notorious Mag Crews across a mostly underrepresented version of the midwestern United States, is true to the naturalism of its casting. Like Girls and White Girl, American Honey features sex, drugs, and violence, particularly the way those things are experienced by young people as both burn and ointment.
But instead of focusing on the sordidness as a subject in its own right, American Honey mostly treats it as symptomatic of the kind of life so many kids live as a matter of course. Most of American Honey’s cast is white, hailing from the sort of poor, angry class that generally gets blamed for the rise of Donald Trump. They’re marginalized kids who have absorbed elements of minority, and especially black, culture, and when they do encounter people of color in their travels, there is far more kinship than in their dealings with well-off whites. The movie’s most interested in their class, the lowest rung on the ladder; no wonder, then, that it’s coming from a British filmmaker.
Taking a close look at these lives, Arnold creates a beautiful, funny, and, that word again, shocking portrait of youth culture in America — though in this case, that feeling accompanies the experience of observing an unfamiliar world. American Honey doesn’t move you because it depicts drug and alcohol use; in fact, that drug and alcohol use is so commonplace and routine, so unremarked upon — essentially, the opposite of how it’s treated on Girls — that it quickly becomes background. Instead, the movie’s potency comes from how effectively Arnold and her cast shine a light on a corner of America we almost never see onscreen, and certainly not with this kind of enthusiasm, empathy, and grandiosity.
What American Honey accomplishes, and what White Girl does at its most successful, is humanize a type of young person often missing from the screen. In a post-Girls world, where vice and privileged recklessness have become familiar but the subjects typically still belong to a specific cohort, these two movies present an avenue toward originality and, DARE I SAY IT, shock — the shock of seeing the lives and stories, both good and bad, of the unseen. Because what’s more shocking in America these days than treating people of color and the poor like actual human beings?