I've never felt more exhausted coming out of a film in recent memory than I did Andrea Arnold's American Honey. Not because it was emotionally gripping or particularly thought-provoking, but simply because I felt like this was the hundredth film this year to present yet another half-baked, surface-level depiction of a social underclass.

Regarded as being "tough" and "uncompromising" by both its most generous and harshest critics, despite the kitchen-sink inspired approach to realism and faux-documentary style American Honey doesn't have anything to say about America's poverty-stricken underbelly that hasn't already been said a million times before. Even worse, this portrayal of American poverty is particularly grim.

The movie wants you to know it from the opening scene too, showing the picture's brilliant breakout star, Sasha Lane, dumpster diving with her step-brother and sister. It does well to establish the desperate, fringes of the economic line characters that the film follows for its astonishing 160-minute runtime, yet it marks the beginning of an unrelenting series of emotionally manipulating images that repeatedly emphasise just how hard done by these characters are.

American Honey been lauded for showing a true to life depiction of a side of America that audiences aren't privy to; a country that's falling apart, failing its citizens and quite tangibly rotting right in front of your eyes. But they're images that have become just as synonymous with American culture as the glitz and glam of LA or the sun-kissed streets of the West Coast. Long, contemplative shots of shoddy, overgrown motel rooms, mud-covered kids playing in the streets and rustic Southern bars are par for the course in American Honey, shot as though they're shedding light on the "real" America. But while the handheld camera and unconventional editing would try to convince you otherwise, it's an image just as one-dimensional and superficial as that of a starlit Hollywood sidewalk.

Uninterested with actually exploring characters or the damaging effects of depravity and abuse, American Honey, like many other films that freely appropriate this poverty aesthetic, are content to coldly use the setting as a means of spurring on tired dramatic clichés. There's realism in the technique but the content is the same Hollywood melodrama that's plagued these movies for years. Family problems, coming-of-age themes and generic love stories are all you'll find here; classic tales that use the aesthetics of poverty to place them in a context that's automatically emotionally and socially evocative.

Even worse, and under the guise of "realistic" filmmaking, these films seem to get off on putting characters in the ugliest situations imaginable. It's not enough that our hero comes home from dumpster diving, but she comes back to a run-down home where her verbally abusive step-dad demands his dinner while he grabs a beer. But even that's not enough because as well as being intimidating and threatening he also has to be a potential molester too right? And if you still didn't get the hint then a final shot that shows the confederate flag proudly draped over the wall will no doubt clue you in that this is a truly awful situation. While there'll no doubt be real life examples of people living under such horrible conditions, by making this the defacto short-hand for representations of poverty filmmakers completely strip out the nuance and actual reality of the problems plaguing society in favour of tired dramatic beats.

But it's just so real isn't it? This is how people are living right now! Don't you feel guilty yet?

No. Because by putting these characters in the same situations, repeating the same clichéd beats over and over again films like American Honey completely rob these scenarios of their real-world importance and complexity. In pictures like this everyone is a cartoon villain; an abuser, a drug-addled parent, an opportunistic thief/murderer/rapist. And if they're not they're a good-hearted middle-class, white-collar worker willing to overlook the flaws of these impoverished characters because they know that somewhere, underneath all that dirt and grime, there's a person just like them!

The characters in American Honey at one point talk about how they manipulate their customers and try to be the person they want to see in order to get the appropriate response. And that's exactly what these films do: they tap into the depravity of these underclasses and the brutal "grittiness" of the settings because that's what an audience expects.

These are the images that resonate the most with an audience's guilty feeling that they might in some way be able to help make these situations better, but aren't. Instead of using these aesthetics to create conversations, films like American Honey use them simply to get a rise, to shock, to provoke and say "look at how horrible this is" rather than to actually try and get an audience to understand why things have gotten so terrible in the first place.

It's a horribly reductive structure of representation that, despite an insistence on "realistic" aesthetics, couldn't be further from the reality of these communities and situations. By being content to rely on the iconography of poverty rather than exploring the larger issues around it - or hell, in the case of American Honey, even how the characters react to these situations - it creates an unrelentingly oppressive atmosphere that can't help but result in an audience feeling cold to the whole thing.

I left this film having no idea what it wanted me to feel about the images it was displaying. Because they rely simply on shocking you with violent, explicit depictions of "realism" rather than engaging with the structures, institutions and culture that allows similar actions to flourish in real life, you can only leave feeling a bit guilty and coming to the conclusion that "that's bad".

Frustratingly, movies like American Honey are content to pay lip service to the settings and characters they draw inspiration from, but they only function to perpetuate and replicate ideas rather than progress them. By freely and carelessly capturing the iconography of poverty-stricken landscapes through kitchen-sink aesthetics films can tap into an audience's guilt and provoke an easy emotional response while giving the illusion that they're also acting as "important" and "critical" voices on real, relevant social issues. But if the "realism" movement continues to push the same cartoon caricatures, comically oppressive scenarios and emotionally manipulative narratives then we should find another name for it. Poverty is real, it's not a "realistic" movie genre.