Shot during the summer of 2019 in British Colombia, Honeycomb is a coming-of-age drama turned deadly from up-and-coming director Avalon Fast. It features no paid actors and was shot on a miniscule budget. However, for all of its rough edges, it has an intriguing, enigmatic story to tell.
Honeycomb opens with a group of five girls looking to escape the oppressively dull summer activities in the their small town. Millie (Rowan Wales) approaches Jules (Jillian Frank) with a proposition: the five of them should move to an isolated, abandoned building that Millie has discovered on an island. With all of the group members desperate to escape their stiflingly uninspiring surroundings and tedious social obligations, they readily accept.
In their new habitat, it isn’t long before the girls start to develop a fresh, communal way of life. This lifestyle change appears idyllic but flirts with some sinister, cult-like undertones. Having said goodbye to their families and partners, the girls sleep together in a cuddle-puddle. They begin to establish a set of formal rules governing their new routine. Among these is the adoption of all-red uniforms, and the principle of ‘appropriate revenge’, where slights are rectified with violent punishments. This is where things take a turn for the worse. Corporal punishments become the norm, and things quickly spiral out of control.
Micro-budget indie films are often plagued with distracting technical issues, and Honeycomb is no exception. Its sound quality can vary alarmingly between shots. The cameras also slide in and out of focus in ways that may be an intentional nod to the hazy summer setting or may be simple production errors. The non-professional actors occasionally struggle to strike a naturalistic tone, and interactions can be awkward and clunky. All of this is par for the course in a production of this type and, fortunately, does not do too much to distract from the story, which is compelling and intelligent.
Again, this is not to say that the film lacks a visual sensibility. The oversaturated, sun-bleached visuals are evocative both of lazy summers in small-town America and of the psychedelic excess of ’60s counterculture. As the danger escalates, so too do jarring juxtapositions of violence and serenity. While technical issues can undercut some of the effectiveness of these moments, they demonstrate a flair for visual storytelling that is deeply impressive.
Some of the thematic signifiers, such as the allusions to Lord of the Flies and the notion of deference to a queen bee, are fairly straightforward. Others, like a mysterious tattoo whose significance is not fully explained, are far more opaque. It speaks to Fast’s burgeoning skill as a filmmaker that she knows when to be explicit about her influences and when to retain a little mystery to keep the audience engaged.
The way the story compares and contrasts the two main groups of protagonists is also illustrative. The boys who remained in the town are incurious and indifferent to their own stagnation. They hang out, having inane conversations and drinking. Whenever the girls are forced to share time with them, they seem bored to tears. Meanwhile, for all of its sinister Manson Family vibes (helped along by party scenes in which psychedelic music blasts), the group that the girls create is much more compelling. Even as it splinters and fractures into competing groups of paranoiacs, it is still somehow more alluring than the leaden atmosphere of the town.
It’s also interesting to consider where Honeycomb sits within a horror landscape shaped by the recent resurgence of folk horror. With its rural setting and cultish atmosphere, Honeycomb feels like it owes a lot to the genre. However, the protagonists aren’t beholden to ancient traditions or the victims of dark forces emanating from the landscape. Instead, they are active participants, improvising their new belief system out of whole cloth. In their desperation to escape teenage ennui, the characters in Honeycomb are ‘Yes, and’-ing themselves to the brink of their own personal Jonestown. It is this sense of agency that makes Honeycomb an interesting psychological character study.
All in all, Honeycomb is a fantastic example of passionate indie filmmaking. Although decidedly lacking in polish, it has vision, ambition, and a determination to tell a complex and multi-faceted story with whatever tools are available to it. While the technical limitations may be off-putting to some, they cannot distract from the clear signs that Avalon Fast is a talent worth watching out for in the future.