Neon-Neo Realism

By Joseph PompOctober 6, 2017

Neon-Neo Realism
AT THE LANGUOROUS END of the Dubya years, A. O. Scott wrote “Neo-Neo Realism,” a feature for The New York Times magazine that, in hindsight, was less a heralding of a new American school of filmmaking than a celebratory look back at some of the decade’s most impressive independent productions. Scott began with a recollection of the well-deserved acclaim that critics gave Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2008). If the film felt important because of its attunement to economic hardships faced by some of the United States’s less-professionalized folk, it was also similar to films by like-minded filmmakers such as Ramin Bahrani, Lance Hammer, and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck in masterfully purveying specificity of place — be it the margins of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo; rural Mississippi in Hammer’s Ballast; or the bowels of Brooklyn in Boden and Fleck’s Half Nelson. The emotional hardships of these films’ protagonists were compounded by financial distress. One got the sense that their difficulties would likely continue to beset them, and yet by the end of each film, they seemed better prepared than ever to march onward.

On The New Yorker’s website, Richard Brody wrote a rapid-fire response to the article (one of the only substantial critiques to emerge), calling Scott out on various film-historical truisms belied by his characterization of neorealism. The points varied in their persuasiveness. Among the sturdier was Brody’s note that, by the 1980s, neorealism had become a dominant mode of American independent filmmaking, thus suggesting that nothing about the “neo-neo realists” was particularly new. Meanwhile, the characters buoying these “neo-neo movies,” he claimed, were vessels emptied of nearly all but their social predicament. Their relatively solemn dispositions also characterized the films’ overriding aesthetic. Studious, painterly long takes prevailed. This unity of time and space aimed to evoke the organic stream of everyday life, but it clearly stemmed from a formula condoned by film schools and festivals alike.

The calm with which the “neo-neo realist” films tackled nightmares like abject poverty, drug addiction, and suicide sometimes resembled that of a dispassionate journalist. We may dip our toes into the quagmires that the people onscreen are living through, but we are not forced to jump in. Juxtaposed with the cream of the recent crop of American indie films, equally under the influence of neorealism, the “neo-neo-realist” movies start to look quite self-content and idly optimistic, much like the times that gave rise to their canonization. Coming at the other end of the Obama era, however, films like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, and Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time 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.

For some, these movies’ feverish musicality could seem like a far cry from the verisimilitude that defines neorealism. But the social-media-saturated society and panoptic state we inhabit today is layered with visual textures and riddled with constraints that the war-torn cities of Europe in which neorealism coalesced couldn’t have imagined. Shouldn’t the aesthetics employed to reflect the anxieties and moral ambiguities of our daily existence consequently be both lush and aggressive? Enter Neon-Neo Realism.


Scott’s “Neo-Neo Realism” appeared less than two months before a film called Go Get Some Rosemary (later retitled Daddy Longlegs) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. To certain sets of eyes, the film’s directors, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, have been among the most promising and rapidly growing talents in independent filmmaking for some time. Their new film, Good Time, could be described as their first “movie movie,” in the sense that it includes two recognizable faces (Robert Pattinson and Jennifer Jason Leigh) and follows the execution and aftermath of a heist with popcorn propulsion. Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, a thuggish denizen of Queens without an ounce of moral rectitude, save for his tenderness toward his developmentally disabled brother Nick, played with great conviction by Benny Safdie. Determined to make enough money so that Nick no longer has to live in state care, Connie plots a Manhattan bank robbery that goes horribly wrong when the teller inserts an exploding dye pack into the loot. The cops track the brothers down, and, in his panic, Nick blows his cover and is arrested. The remainder of the film follows Connie’s madcap race to post bail for Nick’s release.

If the scenario sounds awfully Hollywood, the desperation, waywardness, and plain incompetence of these characters align more with neo-neo realist priorities. Like the Italian neo- and the American neo-neo realists, the Safdies make use of nonprofessional actors (Pattinson, of course, notwithstanding), people’s real-life homes, and natural lighting to astonishing effect. Perhaps most importantly, in all of their films they’ve settled their lenses on a place (New York City) and committed to chronicling the dreamers and train wrecks zipping around it. But the Safdies don’t settle for simply representing a microcosm within the metropolis, as do many of the neo-neo realist films. Whisking through multicultural Queens, Connie interacts with various ethnic groups and even different classes: for instance, his lover (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) lives with her wealthy mother in a luxury high-rise; his stomping grounds, meanwhile, are populated by working-class immigrants.

A similarly ambitious sociological vision filtered by neon is practiced by a wider cadre of young writer-directors, including CalArts classmates Eliza Hittman and Andrew Ahn, as well as Barry Jenkins. All three have focused on adolescence in their last features, but whereas Jenkins examined his native Miami and Ahn Los Angeles’s Koreatown, Hittman has planted her feet in another overlooked corner of New York: Gerritsen Beach, a couple of miles east of Coney Island. Like Good Time, Hittman’s sophomore feature Beach Rats takes a long look at a forgotten region of the city, bathing it in neon light and examining its lost souls. All four filmmakers have gravitated toward grim situations represented metonymically by locations such as the bail bonds storefront in Good Time, the pawn shop in Beach Rats, the darker corners of the jjimjilbang in Ahn’s Spa Night, and the drug-ridden housing project in Moonlight. Their gifted directors of photography paint with deep reds, cool blues, and crayon colors like jungle green and lemon yellow. The use of flashing red and blue lights to demarcate the section breaks in Moonlight is particularly significant to its inclusion in this group of films. They endow the film’s episodic structure with an urgent affective charge, melding Jenkins’s art-house style and claims to urban authenticity.

It’s fitting that the distributor of Beach Rats is called NEON, a company co-founded this year by Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League, a guy who probably intuits the taste of young cineastes better than anyone in the business. NEON’s other releases include Errol Morris’s The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Laura Poitras’s Risk, the Aubrey Plaza vehicle Ingrid Goes West, and Aaron Katz’s forthcoming Gemini. (Interestingly, this last film will be the second release from Barry Jenkins’s production company PASTEL, and one could make the case that Jenkins and Katz are pretty much the only directors that have had great success transitioning from the more aesthetically humble, mumblecore aughts to these bling-bling twenty-teens.) I bring up film distribution here to note that branding counts for more than we may like to account for when thinking about art films. Many of the purveyors of what Brody lambasted as “granola cinema” have shuttered, and the only hope for intelligent, stylistically ambitious productions has been the emergence of sleeker, sexier outfits like A24, which released Good Time and Moonlight.

While so many in the neo-neo circle are or have been teachers in film departments in the Northeast, exemplifying and espousing a mannered auteurism that can captivate festival juries and the informed masses alike, there is something wilder about the neon-neo realist aesthetic. Its directors have their eyes unabashedly set on a younger crowd, which may not yet be cinema-attending en masse but which will undoubtedly be more diverse than the crowds that line up for the latest release from Sony Pictures Classics. A big reason this newer, neon cinema is unpalatable to older viewers (like Scott, who panned Good Time), is its radical updating of documentary-fiction hybridity. If the neo-neo-realist 2000s emulated a documentary approach exemplified by quiet observation and ruminative long takes, then the 2010s have inevitably embraced the ubiquity of short-form, small-screen content: the found poetry of hand-held footage, obnoxiously extreme close-ups, and a general shooting style that seeks to shift agency away from the observer and toward the observed.

This brings us back to Good Time. The Safdies, who have made one documentary feature, Lenny Cooke, have the spontaneity and quick decision-making abilities of nonfiction filmmakers. This positions them about as far away from a Bahrani, who spent up to an entire year in rehearsals on each of his mid-aught pictures. (Sure, Pattinson did his fair share of preparation for his role in Good Time, but he also reported that everyone around him on set was liable to tear up the dialogue at the drop of a dime and make it all up from scratch.) The Safdies have become known for their predilection to shoot a street scene from the opposite sidewalk, engineering moments to unfold before the camera as if they were being captured accidentally by a passing news truck. In Heaven Knows What and Good Time particularly, this makes for one of the most accurate representations of the texture of city life seen on a multiplex screen in decades.

Good Time flies by, but what is it clocking? The title alludes to prison lingo: when a well-behaved inmate has her sentence commuted, she has made “good time.” It’s an odd way of naming a film that spends very little of its runtime in a jail cell (Connie has been released from prison before the film begins). Are we, then, to interpret “good time” ironically — that right as a criminal is set back out into the world because of good behavior, he is fated to return to a life of crime? Such a tragic vision of humanity fits neatly into the neorealist tradition on which the Safdies are clearly riffing. Or, taking the neorealist worldview of modern society as a prison-house to heart, do we flip this inside-outside dichotomy and note that Connie’s convoluted good intentions outside the can are precisely what will earn him an inevitable return visit to Rikers? In light of Connie’s nihilistic, day-by-day and even minute-to-minute way of life, it appears that the events we witness over the course of the film may form the basis of his “good time.” His salvation would lie, then, within the confines of three thick walls and a movable fourth. Somewhat like the moviegoer’s own.


Joseph Pomp is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature with a secondary field in Critical Media Practice at Harvard University. His criticism has previously appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Film Quarterly, Senses of Cinema, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Joseph Pomp is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature with a secondary field in Critical Media Practice at Harvard University. His criticism has previously appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Film Quarterly, Senses of Cinema, and elsewhere.


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