Sunday 3 May 2015

Pressure: "Honeytrap"

It's serendipity that Rebecca Johnson's feature debut Honeytrap should open in UK cinemas on the same day as Céline Sciamma's Girlhood: these are very much sister-films, equally deft in their dissection of the pressures faced by young women living in the inner city. Johnson's film concerns Layla (glowing newcomer Jessica Sula), a naive 15-year-old just relocated from Trinidad to Brixton to live with a mum who's busy living the self-involved life of a party girl even as her mid-thirties loom on the horizon. A Cinderella existence of cooking, cleaning and generally being downtrodden beckons our heroine; she even attracts her own Buttons in Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza), a mutely dependable sort obliged to look on, helpless, as his glamorous consort attracts the eye of neighborhood wrong 'uns. Chief among these would be emergent rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount), who spirits Layla away from her drudgery to star in a music video, deflowers and defends her - yet experience tells us true Prince Charmings don't generally boast on record about the numerous girls they've fucked in nightclubs, and rarely disseminate clips of themselves getting blown by all and sundry.

That this fairytale has no happy ending has already been made evident from the film's pre-emptive opening, an unspecified but vicious episode of street violence. It's how we get there that's key, and Johnson makes for a patient and attentive observer. She notes, entirely non-judgementally, how the usual peer pressures associated with comings of age have only been heightened by social media and our celeb-fixated culture: Layla winds up comparing herself not just to her mother (whose response to the promo casting news is a tellingly blunt "don't get pregnant"), but the likes of Beyonce and RiRi, and inevitably finds she doesn't measure up to a multi-millionaire success story with a team of stylists at her disposal. (To any teenage girls similarly struggling with self-image, I would say: well, at least you didn't sink your pocket money into Tidal.)

Johnson makes the odd rookie error: a florid, overbearing score threatens to pull certain scenes into the realms of the afterschool movie, and her determination to contextualise her characters' actions means the honeytrap plot that leads to that pivotal kerfuffle feels rather squeezed into the closing fifteen minutes. Generally, though, she takes a rigorous approach to this unsentimental education: wisely resisting the hollow flash usually tossed upon low-budget urban dramas, she instead deploys choice location work and some very accomplished performances to give the film its nervy energy, everything crystallising in one banal yet horrifying image - that of a bloodied kid lying in a street and crying for his mother. By the look of things, Honeytrap just scraped theatrical distribution; it emerges in a week of some twenty-plus releases. Yet it bears comparison not just with the Sciamma film, but Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank and - in particular - Eliza Hittman's It Felt Like Love (itself awaiting a UK release after its London Film Festival appearance in 2013): it's a work of considerable promise, organised around a steely core of seriousness.

Honeytrap opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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