Adolescence is a period defined by change. Evolution, adaption, birth, and rebirth, all in the undertaken in name of finding clarity in that most uncertain of things, the future. There’s liminality about our adolescent years that renders them difficult to depict on screen. We are at once losing ourselves whilst also emerging as a fully rounded person for the first time. In other words, adolescence is motion.
Some films zoom in on formative moments. Ferris Buller’s Day Off spotlighted rebellion; The Edge of Seventeen captured the competing psychologies of feeling you are the most important and least significant person in the entire world. Other films take a more sociological approach, filtering teenage years through the lens of a decade. American Graffiti is synonymous with the 60s, The Breakfast Club the 80s, and Booksmart (I suspect) will come to represent the 2010s. A few films split the difference, capturing the emotional specificity of both at once. Lady Bird stands as a prime example, capturing the nuances of adolescent mentalities (“What if this is the best version?”) and the broad strokes of coming-of-age in the early 2000s (“Lady Bird always says she lives on the wrong side of the tracks”, after all).
American Honey and Skate Kitchen are two more films that embody both facets with equal verve. But where Lady Bird situated itself in the recent past, American Honey and Skate Kitchen are very much of the current moment, looking to dissect how one comes-of-age in our modern social climate. Key to their approach is the weight given to the role of community, an oft-overlooked element of one’s adolescent identity.
In American Honey, Star (Sasha Lane) finds belonging with a nomadic collective, who roam rust-belt towns selling magazines. Star, disaffected with her lot in life — caring for children who aren’t hers, with an abusive father — seizes the chance to restart her life. The road-trip format of the film sees Star ricochet from person-to-person, place-to-place. Identity is not something Star feels is within her implicitly, but rather something that must be excavated like a precious stone, through force. And for her, that force comes from the inertia co-existing with others.
Skate Kitchen, meanwhile, has a healthier outlook on the role of community. Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), wants to be part of a collective. Specifically, the New York skateboarding crew, Skate Kitchen. The film concerns itself with Camille’s struggle to reconcile her desire to be a part of a collective while also retaining her identity. Coming-of-age films put a premium on individuality, releasing oneself from the shackles of community, but Skate Kitchen rebuttals that notion, putting forward that the be part of a larger whole can be just as fulfilling. Sequences of Skate Kitchen drifting down New York roads are particularly magical. As birds are to the sky, so are they to the road — a flight.
An element of that unites American Honey and Skate Kitchen while setting them apart from so many of their peers, is their acknowledgment of the role capitalism and money play in our adolescent development. Star, Camille, and the communities they take to have fallen through the gaps. They have no money; the protective net of society doesn’t extend to them. In fact, the system would rather be rid of them. Capitalism hates the kind of people depicted in these films; how can any ideology who’s driving ethos is “greed is good” not?
American Honey and Skate Kitchen disassemble adolescence into its most fundamental state: pure kinetic energy. The stories they depict embody the time they are made in. Fighting for a right to exist on your terms is difficult at the best of time. And the 21st century — the late-capitalist mire that it is — is hardly the best of times. By placing adolescence within clearly defined communities, Andrea Arnold and Crystal Moselle (who wrote and directed their respective features, another small parallel making these films perfect as a double) assert that the greatest value of our formative years is our ability to share them.