Honeycomb opens with a slow zoom away from a painting on a wall. It is a portrait depicting a woman before a background which comprises the interlocking cellular hexagons of a honeycomb, even as she herself sports a sweater striped in apian blacks and yellows, and has two giant bees perched on her hair. There is something ineffably sinister about this merger of human and bee – an impression certainly helped by Max Graham’s accompanying score, which brings together a choir, piano, discordant strings and drums (later it will offer a soundscape of blippy synths). Next there is a cut to an open field, as Millie (Rowan Wales), lying prone on a sheet, looks directly into the camera – and then primitive claymation shows five bees flying around what is in part a beehive and in part a human house (complete with smoking chimney), as the film’s title appears.
The feature debut of 22-year-old director Avalon Fast, Honeycomb concerns five young women who, in the languid summer between high school and the world of adulthood, find themselves unemployed, aimless and bored. When Willow (Sophie Bawks-Smith) discovers an abandoned house out in the woods, she proposes to her friends Jules (Jillian Franck), Leader (Destini Stewart), Vicki (Mari Geraghty) and Millie that they should leave the mundane security of their childhood homes and come live there instead, apart from society. Dissatisfied with their present, and uncertain about their future, the girls all agree, and form their own community together, off grid and on the margins. Soon, as they are joined by Millie’s sister June (Jaris Wales), five become six, and their hive-like cell is complete.
Honeycomb is about the disorientation and danger of growing up – that brief, fleeting period of youth when friendships define the world, when marks are made and boundaries redrawn, and when everything seems possible – before reality stings and flights of fancy are brought low by harsh gravity. Faced with a future of disappointing boys, dull service industry jobs and general meaninglessness, these girls go on a quest for “something special” and form an outsider colony where they make their own rules, backed up by an arbitrary system of justice, to govern their conduct and maintain their fragile utopia. While at first the film unfolds with all the observational meandering and blank-faced hanging out of Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1990), it soon becomes clear – like a knife to the eye – that these girls’ petty power plays, jealous resentments and casually cruel actions have bloody consequences that will leave permanent scars.
Male contemporaries, excluded but for the odd house party, conjecture fancifully about what the girls might be getting up to alone out there in the woods – Maenadic omophagia? Sapphic orgies? The truth is more banal, if also more mysterious, as these women’s collective energy congeals and curdles into a toxic brew – and with some seeking to escape to their old lives, and others vying for the position of queen bee, this cult-like household degenerates into what one of their old male friends terms “some Lord of the Flies shit” (only with bees), from which there can be no easy going back. It is like Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), Amanda Kramer’s Ladyworld (2018), either version of The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971; Sofia Coppola, 2017), or any nunsploitation film – a story of women evolving and devolving in a shared hermetic environment.
“I am leaving,” Willow writes in a letter to her parents, “This might not be goodbye forever, but lately it’s hard to know what forever means.” The time that she and the others spend in the August heat certainly is a (rite of) passage, but the sweltering, seeming endlessness of the season will inevitably give way to a less accommodating Autumn and Winter, even as the girls’ provisions run low, their money runs out, and even more alarming signs of mortality encroach. One girl in this cell, once gone, might be readily replaceable by another, but this barely self-sufficient idyll still comes with the strong sense of an ending. “Honestly,” says Vicki, “it might be best if we cut ties completely with the outside world.” This however is an impossible dream, and there are some hard home truths that these women will eventually have to face about what they have done together on their sororal sojourn out in the wilderness. Here, honey is a sweetener, but also an allergen, its delicious taste easily able to turn sour. Likewise the idealised coming of age which Honeycomb portrays also has its dark side.
“This isn’t like Hollywood,” complains ‘Jones the boom mic operator’, in a comic outtake at the end of the film’s closing credits. ‘Jones’ is really just Fast’s cowriter Emmett Roiko (who also plays Leader’s ex Emmett in the film) clowning around on location – but the words ring true for a production that makes a virtue of its own amateurishness, finding in all the hazy visuals and drawling, dreamy performances a singular vibe that is as far from Tinseltown as it is possible to go. Honeycomb is a low-budget labour of love that sets its own reference points both for charting outward-bound ephebic rites, and for capturing the synchronised solidarity cum schism of lost young women as they find and forge their own way towards (or is it away from?) the impending horrors of adult responsibility. It is a ‘B’ movie alright – flighty and elusive, with a sting in its tail.
strap: Avalon Fast’s dreamy feature debut is both cult and b(ee) movie, depicting young women who form a hive-like colony on the margins.
© Anton Bitel