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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

HONEYTRAP (2014) // London Film Festival Screening ~ "Probably the single most upsetting moment in a film I think I've ever seen . . "

'Are you aged 17-25 and living in Lambeth and interested in being trainees on HONEYTRAP? Fierce Productions are recruiting 15 trainees for the film shoot this summer. To be clear: these are not paid roles. This is an opportunity for you to learn and be trained and mentored by film industry professionals'
~ Advertising for Honeytrap crew/ June 2013

Spoilers may hide under peroxide skies below - watch before reading!

Director Rebecca Johnson, at the Q/A following the London Film Festival screening of Honeytrap at VUE Cinema, Leicester Square, acknowledges genuinely rapturous applause. Her film has a worthy pedigree, but don't let that put you off. It's an astounding work of drama in its own right.

What do I mean by 'pedigree'? Shot in Brixton, along the main streets and the housing estates surrounding this most vibrant of South London locations with a mostly young cast (a mix of actors both inexperienced and professional, many local), imbued beautifully with a mesmeric and riotous soundtrack and based - loosely - on a real life case, Johnson tells the audience that her film was five years in the writing. It has a motive: to show that, in all instances of gang crime, the young people often involved and reported on by the media are not just stereotypical 'bad kids with attitude' but real people, often pushed into gang culture and serious situations by friends, family (or an absence of either), social media and peer expectation.

I'm not entirely sure the slightly forced (at times - though I don't doubt the accuracy) background of 15 year old Layla (Jessica Sula - Grace Violet in Channel 4's 'Skins') arriving in Brixton after a tormented life with abusive grandparents in Trinidad; returning to live with her mother and facing immediate ridicule (especially of her subdued clothing) is necessary to dwell on so often. We don't find much out about Layla's life in Trinidad or why it was so bad - and have to fill in the blanks ourselves. That's probably deliberate, but it's still mentioned often enough to need more fleshing out to deserve to be.

In the same way it's wrong of the media to blame 'black kids' from 'the wrong side of the tracks' every time a stabbing takes place in a South London suburb (Johnson points out that media interest in high profile gang violence always talks up the skin colour and social background of those involved), it could also be wishful thinking that many a 'bad girl' such as Layla, is a victim of abusive or missing parenting too. 

That generalisation - of abuse or bad parenting as trigger - could be countered as being as much a generalisation as any other in the media about gang culture. I wouldn't dare say that directly to director Rebecca Johnson's face though - one question from the audience wonders if the character development of Layla is too self-centred at the expense of those around her, and is met with near rebuke: "Why do you think that?" or similar, is Johnson's reply ("You're answering my question with another question" the audience member counters; a tense moment quickly diffused by a fuller response). The girl's life, Johnson states - firmly, is very much a part and consequence of all those around her and, in her troubled interaction with two local boys, confrontations with seriously bitchy girls and uncertain relationship with a wayward mother on screen (as well as a touching encounter with a Brixton nurse) you don't ever doubt this claim.

I think my only initial concern with Honeytrap, is that this is a film that could easily sink under its own worthiness if it's not careful. Johnson also tells us that - out of respect for real life victims of street/ gang crime - she doesn't want the film to be compared too directly to any previous actual events (Samantha Joseph - the so-called 'Honeytrap Killer', especially and whose life the plot of this movie most clearly, for most of us, mirrors). She avoided her lead character being portrayed as some kind of underage temptress or femme fatale too (characteristics the tabloids would certainly not ignore). Instead, the script of Honeytrap is 'based upon Johnson's own research' we are told, at the BFI's introduction, into Brixton culture and identity, including the lure and the dangers of joining a gang - and her tireless work with young people in the area. It's admirable - but if too much hysteria is excised, could the film become boring, however important continued support to young people at threat from crime and gang culture is. And it is important.

What remains, after Johnson's clear vision gets its own way, is a compelling work of genuinely affecting power, centred on young people and the troubles they face daily, but doesn't overdo its good-intentioned motives. Or even pass too much judgement either - the script is refreshingly honest and brutally unflinching in both subject matter and conception.

The film ends fairly suddenly and little aftermath of such a catastrophic event as that which takes place in the film's climatic sequence is shown. This is either frustrating (because of a missed opportunity) or a powerful statement of intent and avoidance of dwelling on repercussions: deliberately concentrating instead, on the film's greater concern of what makes us the way we are and what happens when peer pressure on neglected young lives - causes something to snap and change everything, forever. Consequences are traumatic - awful, and not dulled by preachy repercussions here; and maybe that's the point.

I was probably being too petty earlier about whether the director/ writer of this movie is too caught up in social message at the expense of drama, or cinema (anyway, she isn't - I just wanted to explore that 'fine line'). Instead, Rebecca Johnson comes across as a genuinely informed, compulsive, witty and vibrant local figure supporting kids in the Brixton area with drama workshops and industry training through her own not-for-profit film company - Fierce Productions.

Johnson knows what she is doing - importantly, she is also a good filmmaker and Honeytrap has a storytelling strength that never loses sight of cinematic convention and audience appeal. Balancing a strong social message while avoiding exploitation of real life events and then making a film that anyone can appreciate, not just young Brixton locals (but also appealing to this group as well, as that is the centre of the film's strength), must have been difficult. I think she has made it work. It could so easily have been ignored by all but a few - but this is a film that has now earned not just a festival screening but a theatrical release (we are told it will have a limited run in selected cinemas). Few others get so lucky. Johnson acknowledges from the start how big a deal having her low-budget film screening at the London Film Festival is.

Brixton-based grime MC - 'Killa P', who appears in the movie and is also on the soundtrack (along with other local musicians such as Skwilla, Russo and Mahalia - all new names to me, but the soundtrack is exceptional) is called up from the audience to appear on stage alongside his director and perhaps put the real message of Honeytrap into more direct perspective. Answering a question about whether he thinks that young inexperienced actors from around Brixton appearing in the movie is a good thing, he replies that it is, simply: "A way of inter-connecting. Some of us in Brixton do stuff," he says, "like music, art or movies. Others don't." But everyone, along the way, still - "inter-connects".

Everyone then, perhaps equally important to the vibrancy of a place - to Brixton, or to a sense of identity whether directly or not. Is that how Brixton's unique identity is formed? By this 'inter-connecting' of a community - forcing a voice of its own? Everyone at the screening gives a spontaneous round of applause to Killa's words. They could make sense to many of us, probably regardless of where you are from or whatever age you are. But you know what - I think a good proportion of the audience at the screening this afternoon are young and from Brixton. And that's as it should be.


The film starts out with young Trinidadian Layla, arriving in Brixton, meeting local girls who persuade her (to prove herself) to shoplift clothing that girls of her age, in this group, need to wear to get noticed: shiny sequined tops, satin hotpants and big coats! Layla gets noticed by local rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount - soon to be seen in next year's 'The Boy with the Thorn in His Side') but also courted by the more caring and sensitive Shaun (relative newcomer Ntonga Mwanza). Troy gets increasingly possessive of Layla and it all ends in tragedy for one member of the cast on the backstreets of Croydon.
Leading cast members Jessica Sula, Lucien Laviscount and Ntonga Mwanza give unforgettable performances. Sula allows her character of Layla real vulnerability and never comes across as manipulative; only ever drowning in a sea of circumstance and peer persuasion. When she witnesses real tragedy unfold (tragedy she hadn't really considered) her half-laugh, half-sob, desperate glancing towards and away from the scene of the crime is genuinely unbearable to witness.

Ntonga Mwanza imbues his role of Shaun with authentic concern for Layla. You can't help but identify with Shaun and even love him to bits (thanks to elements of humour, that you may be surprised the film contains plenty of) as a bumbling suitor to the ballsy Layla, and which renders the violent threats from local gang members supporting Troy even more shocking.

A truly upsetting sequence of final violence involving Shaun sees him lying on a lonely road and crying out: "Mummy . . Mummy . ." - it is simply, horrendously, heart-breaking. In fact, it's the single most upsetting moment in a film I think I've ever seen and had audience members around me with hands across their faces, unable to watch such a traumatically sudden comedown from witty, home-loving, caring young man to beaten, broken wreck on screen - a swift act of violence and subsequent plea for help breaking the soul of even the most jaded of cinemagoer.

If one image shouts: put down knives, don't join a gang - it's probably this one - of innocent Shaun lying on the road, dying. But to simplify such a lifestyle, or imply all groups of young people (or all gangs even) are bad, is as stupid as the media reporting itself often is on gang behaviour. It's a message, perhaps, that respect and inter-connecting, whoever you are and however it happens - as we heard earlier at the Q/A  - is the best and maybe only way forward. A sense of identity that includes everyone and unites everyone. Ends conflict. An impossible dream? I'll leave that to people who know - people like filmmaker Rebecca Johnson or MC Killa, as nobody knows anything unless you live within it; certainly no film critic or sensationalist media out there. And you know - I don't wish to dwell on the social issues at play in this movie at the expense of the film itself. But to ignore the subjects raised in Honeytrap and not at least attempt a considered response - would be to do the film a disservice.

It's the mothers of the kids in this movie who form the real heart of Honeytrap . .
We first encounter Layla's wayward mother - Shiree (Naomi Ryan) at the very start of the film. Abandoning her daughter for the last ten years, she has an equally unbothered new boyfriend to parade around the house and shows little sympathy when Layla is seriously injured and ends up in hospital (an incredibly powerful and affecting bed-ridden despondency from Jessica Sula here as she strikes up a friendship with the nurse caring for her and who gently asks to tuck the girl in when her mother fails to show). The nurse is played by Anjela Lauren Smith who almost steals the entire movie in a few minutes of screen time.

Naomi Ryan appears on stage at the Q/A to talk about the role of Layla's mother. She only just makes it, having been stopped at the door by VUE staff and asked for a ticket! She persuades them that she really does have to get to a Q/A upstairs, by "slipping under something when they weren't looking" - I think she half-jokes. Ryan tells the audience that she didn't like her character and her own opinion is that whatever your circumstance or home life, you can still get through anything on your own determination to succeed (and from similar personal experience - as she herself has done). Having a mother to support you, especially in a one parent family situation, can be positive and liberating. This earns the actress a long round of applause and it's an impassioned and quite lengthy speech she gives, that I'm probably not doing justice to here. You probably just had to be there.

The final shot of the film is that of a mother reaching out for her daughter's hand, for perhaps the first time in a long while, and puts forward the film's true message of redemptive love and maybe some hope in the shadow of hopelessness.  

'MUM', 'DAUGHTER', DIRECTOR! (source: facebook)

It's his mother that Shaun calls out for (and who is kind and receptive to Layla when she visits, as well as being protective of her son). Troy too (the 'enemy' of sorts of the movie, but who clearly may not be in a traditional sense - often he just comes across as all show and naivety, his life fated to an act of violence by circumstance; at home he just plays video games and acts like a regular teenager) withers when his own mother tells him to behave with his mates while she is out and "clean the place up". The message seemingly being from director Rebecca Johnson that home life and family is the main axis in anyone's life and without that protection to be grounded by, lives can easily spiral out of control. But they could spiral anyway.

So many young lives ruined, not because of a less than stable home life, or because of a lack of friends, or even because nobody cared  - just because that's the way things happened. It's so goddam heart-breaking. Those affected by knife crime include entire families and groups of friends, connected and ruined forever, by one act.

Honeytrap is a film for lovers of cinema. It's a film that unites - yes; inter-connects -  young filmmakers in the natural process, both in front of and behind the camera. The soundtrack is exciting and well-judged and the portrayal of Brixton is shot with real love (though I hope it doesn't come across as portraying young people in Brixton generally in a negative light, as it shouldn't - the events portrayed on screen being the extreme, even if you can still identify with the background and culture).


On her way up the stairs at VUE cinema, near the end of the Q/A, an elderly woman with a walking stick almost gets to the top stair before stopping and whispering to an audience member in an aisle seat in front of me - a young woman, probably in her early twenties: "I'll tell you a secret - Jessica Sula is my granddaughter." And she says this with such pride that the girl can only smile back and nod her head approvingly, as do I. I don't even know if it's true - I presume it is! It's such a lovely moment. Sula's grandmother has every right to be proud of her granddaughter's performance in Honeytrap - it's authentic and perfectly judged, bursting with humour, anger, and a sassy, sparkling vulnerability.

There's an unexpected and inventive visual playfulness throughout Honeytrap - brilliantly roaming cinematography across the busy Brixton Road, heathland and housing estates. I loved especially the knee-weakening moment where Layla faces a home truth about Troy - a glimpse of some explicit footage on a phone - and all emotion lets loose; the world spins and leads to a violent confrontation (that helps shape Layla's future as a more dominant, if flawed, character) and only ends with the girl stumbling out into a busy road. All this visual queasiness a complete triumph.
Honeytrap is one of the biggest surprises of this year's London Film Festival. It doesn't alienate any one group, despite the powerful, distressing themes and tainted personalities on show. Instead, it brings people together - or it could do. I think, if that's the case, this would be a better badge to wear on any filmmaker's sleeve than any number of good reviews.

It doesn't matter all that much about why or even how this movie got made and whether it was based on real life events or just influenced by them. What is important is that a film as powerful as this one really is, was up there on a screen and playing to a packed audience. See this movie in a cinema or even just buy the DVD when it comes out - it's a life-changer.

words: mark gordon palmer


  1. Saw film today at SXSW today. Great moving film. Girl next to me was crying.

    2 thumbs up

  2. I loved this film.

  3. interesting wish there was like a part two