Tattoos are hard to get right in movies. The most recent, decent example of convincing artwork was depicted in Jon Favreau’s Chef, and that was back in 2014. The first sound heard in Rama Rau’s Honey Bee is a tattoo gun, unmistakable to those who have spent hours in the chair trying not to squirm under the needle. Impressively, the horrifying backdoor job the titular character is enduring looks real. Hopefully it isn’t, though, since poor Honey Bee (Julia Sarah Stone), aka Natalie, is getting the name of her boyfriend — in reality, her pimp — inked on her wrist. The aftercare for her new body mod leaves a lot to be desired, however, as she immediately jumps into bed with the man who branded her and pokes at the uncovered, untreated wound.
Perhaps taking care of new adornments (Natalie also has an infected ear piercing) simply isn’t a concern for a teenage prostitute who routinely hops into massive trucks to make money that she then gladly hands over to a scumbag opportunist positively grinning with glee. When Natalie first appears, she’s already been working the late-night truck stop circuit for a while. Her emotionally abusive faux boyfriend keeps telling her he loves her and that it’ll all be over soon. It will, but not in the way either of them is expecting as the youngster and her similarly unlucky cohorts are picked up by the police, who waste no time in shipping Natalie off to a foster family. Naturally, she would sooner die than give them a chance to get to know her.
It seems the manipulations of Natalie’s boyfriend have worked wonders, as she simply cannot wait to get back to him. As a result, the caustic, purposely disruptive young woman fights back against everybody trying to help her, often violently. Happily, though, and surprisingly for this kind of true-life drama, Rau doesn’t rush her protagonist to an idyllic conclusion where everything has magically worked out. Natalie is a tough character, for sure, and difficult to like at times, but she has undisclosed trauma in her past that, although it’s only hinted at throughout, clearly continues to affect how this young woman interacts with others.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Joko Anwar’s ‘Impetigore’
When Natalie-as-Honey-Bee first appears onscreen, what’s immediately apparent are Stone’s shockingly tiny legs. She’s incredibly skinny, almost like a child, and the way Natalie folds her body up whenever she sits or lays down makes her resemble a baby bird. There are hints at disordered eating patterns but, again, nothing is made explicit. Rau, working off a sensitive script by Bonnie Fairweather and Kathleen Hepburn, foregoes trauma porn in favor of focusing solely on Natalie’s inner struggle writ large. Her film is character-driven to the point of being fuzzy on some of the more pressing details, such as the background of Natalie’s foster siblings and their no-nonsense parents. Honey Bee flirts with exposition in one instance but just enough to scratch the surface.
This approach suits the treatment of sex work and abuse beautifully, however. The first job in which Natalie is engaged is short, with the camera focused squarely on the recipient’s face. Later, a brutal sexual assault is heard but not seen. Honey Bee never once feels titillating, likely because so many women worked on the film, but it doesn’t dwell on the central character’s pain as some kind of personal reckoning either. She has been hurt and consistently puts herself in dangerous situations, but there’s no judgement here. In fact, despite Natalie’s prickly demeanor, she’s engaging. The audience can root for her survival, especially when a final act sojourn to her old life as Honey Bee plays like a mini horror movie. Again, only the aftermath of the violence is shown onscreen, but Rau ratchets up the tension so effectively that it’s suffocating.
Stone, who’s barely in her twenties, is truly exceptional in the lead role. Her naturalistic Honey Bee performance is as raw as an exposed nerve. She plays both sides of the character eloquently, whether it’s the rude and deliberately provocative Honey Bee, who will do whatever she needs to survive, or the world-weary but smart Natalie, who helps her sweet foster sister Chante fit in better at school. Her thawing is gradual, almost imperceptible, with Natalie covering up more as she gets accustomed to normal family life. By the end, she’s like a completely different person, which is a testament to Stone’s remarkable performance. She hasn’t gained weight or changed her hair or done anything else obvious, but Natalie’s posture is different, her manner is softer and she smiles more. It’s the exact opposite of an Oscar-bait performance, where an actress “uglies down” to get under the skin of a character.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Ryan Spindell’s ‘The Mortuary Collection’
Honey Bee is Rau’s feature debut, and the long-time documentary filmmaker brings a naturalistic eye and a light touch to the proceedings, with much of her footage captured using handheld cameras, which gives the film an urgent feel. Interior shots highlight how cramped and out of place Natalie feels in her new home, tottering around it as though she’s wandered into Leatherface’s lair. Later, as she becomes more accustomed to her surroundings, the young woman takes long walks into the wilderness, the scope of the camera widening as Natalie starts to appreciate what true freedom feels like. There are no flashbacks in Honey Bee, which roots the story in the present moment with each passing minute, but none are necessary.
Everything the audience needs to know can be gleaned from Stone’s devastatingly childlike features, twisting and turning as Natalie tries to comprehend the vastly different but equally overwhelming situations she finds herself in, from being stranded on the side of the road to attending a high school party in the woods. The scenes with her horrible pimp are charged with dangerous energy, but the conventionally-handsome Steven Love has wisely been cast in the role to ensure Natalie never seems like a fool for falling for his “you and me against the world” bullshit. Love has an air of James Franco about him, which is funny considering the rumblings about that actor’s own, real-life issues with sexual assault. His character is charming but menacing, his eyes full off deceit. Love plays him like a huckster who thinks he’s hit the jackpot.
The peripheral characters make less of an impression, particularly the other thinly-sketched members of Ryan’s hooker girl gang, but Michelle McLeod is a warm, comforting presence as Chante (who has dark secrets of her own), and beloved character actor Martha Plimpton does fine work as whip-smart foster mom Louise, who consistently proves she’s no pushover (but is ultimately kind to her core). There’s an earthy, yellowy glow to Honey Bee that calls to mind another sensitively told story about sex workers on the fringes of society, Sean Baker’s celebrated, orange-tinged Tangerine, but Rau’s film is less clear in its intentions. It’s a slighter affair, more concerned with providing a scuzzy but always well-meaning day-in-the-life look at somebody in a horrible situation than providing easy answers to how she’ll get out of it.
More by Joey Keogh: Review: Egor Abramenko’s ‘Sputnik’
However, Honey Bee’s final act suggests the documentarian and indeed her writers are more optimistic about the long-term prospects of rescuing children in peril. Rau’s film perhaps doesn’t offer any easy answers because there simply aren’t any to give, but the picture it paints of this poor young woman’s plight is never less than compelling.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.