Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Honeytrap brings Brixton to the big screen

Writer-director Rebecca Johnson constructs a heavily fictionalised narrative around a real life event for her debut feature Honeytrap. I won't reveal the details of the case which briefly dominated the headlines in 2009, but the curious can find out more by clicking here. The cinematic version of the story focuses on 15-year-old Layla (Jessica Sula). After spending her formative years with her grandparents in Trinidad, she is thrown into the urban jungle of Brixton.

In the capital, we enter familiar coming-of-age territory. Layla is largely left to her own devices, as mother Shiree (Naomi Ryan) seems more interested in her boyfriend and reality television than her daughter. Desperate to find an identity and to fit in, Layla adapts her style and practices London-slang in front of the bedroom mirror ("allow it fam!"). Shoplifting in the hope of impressing a group of local girls becomes the first of many mistakes she makes over the course of the film. Soon, the attractive teenager is caught up in a love triangle. She attracts the attention of Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza), your typical nice guy, and gangster-rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount). Unfortunately, Layla instantly falls for the latter.

There are several things to like about Honeytrap. Rebecca Johnson clearly knows what she is talking about; she has been running short film projects with young people in Brixton for more than a decade. Watching a character make one bad decision after another can become a frustrating experience for the audience, but we stay on Layla's side throughout. Johnson never patronises or pities her protagonist and tells the story through the melodramatic lens of a teenage girl. Jessica Sula turns out to be a remarkable screen-presence in the leading role.

We also understand what attracts Layla to Troy despite his reprehensible behaviour. As a budding rapper, he represents (the potential of) fame, money, glamour, and respect. In short, he has the status, the identity, she craves. Music and culture are identified as a potential escape very early on. A drawing of Beyoncé for instance becomes a replacement for maternal love. Fashion likewise becomes a form of communication. In one scene, Layla wears a glittery golden dress in an attempt to make Troy jealous. On the streets of Brixton, she looks ridiculous, but in her own fairytale-world, it makes sense. These little moments of subjective filmmaking show a deep understanding of the female teenage experience in a hostile urban context dominated by men.

The film is however not without flaws. The budget was extremely low ($2 million and change) and it shows. Johnson struggles to make Honeytrap look cinematic, but the visuals remain all too frequently rough and underdeveloped. The film also works much better as a character study than a piece of dramatic storytelling. Her decision to tease the climactic tragic event in the opening scene robs the final act of tension for the unknowing audience member. As a result, the ending is more of an afterthought than an exciting climax. Comparisons to CĂ©line Sciamma's vastly superior (and, to be fair, more expensive) Girlhood don't do Honeytrap any favours either. Both films, released on the same day in the UK, examine the life of a black teenage girl in the modern urban context. If you only have time for one, pick Girlhood, but Honeytrap does make for an interesting companion piece.

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