D: Rebecca Johnson / 93m
Cast: Jessica Sula, Lucien Leviscount, Ntonga Mwanza, Naomi Ryan, Danielle Vitalis, Lauren Johns
Fifteen year old Layla (Sula) has had to move from Trinidad to Brixton to live with her mother, Shiree (Ryan). Neither of them is happy about the arrangement: Shiree makes it clear that Layla isn’t going to change her routine to help her fit in, while Layla makes it equally clear that she doesn’t want to be in the UK. They come to an uneasy arrangement, and Layla begins attending school. At first she finds it hard to fit in, but she eventually makes friends with a group of girls that includes Tonisha (Vitalis) and Jade (Johns). They take her under their wing but at the same time keep a distance from her, and encourage Layla to shoplift. Not wanting to remain an outsider, Layla goes along with whatever they do, including taking part in a music video being made by local rapper Troy (Leviscount).
Troy takes a close interest in Layla and gives her the impression that he really likes her. Layla is smitten and starts spending time with him, believing she’s his new girlfriend. When Troy’s attention begins to wane, and her friends become less interested in her because of the way she’s apparently snared Troy, whom they’re attracted to as well. With Troy losing interest, Layla goes to his flat where she is confronted by his real girlfriend. The visit ends badly, while at home, Shiree’s new boyfriend notices Layla and makes things awkward between mother and daughter.
At school, and with Troy no longer making any attempt to see Layla, she begins to spend time with Shaun (Mwanza). She regards Shaun as a friend while he hopes they can be closer. When he’s seen with Layla once too often, Troy hears about it and is angered by what he sees as an unacceptable relationship (Shaun has an effeminate air about him that Troy is disgusted by). Using Tonisha and Jade’s influence on Layla, Troy gets them to convince Layla to bring Shaun to a particular spot where Troy and some of his friends will be lying in wait for him With her loyalties torn between her friendship for Shaun and her need to fit in, Layla has to make a decision that will prove to be life changing.
Based on a true story, Honeytrap is a sparse, naturalistic drama that highlights issues of race, acceptance, self-respect, jealousy, bullying, love, and manipulation amongst teenagers. It’s a powerfully direct movie capped by a terrific performance from Sula, and consistently thought-provoking. In the hands of writer/director Johnson, Layla’s struggle to fit in and be valued is given a fresh, pragmatic approach that helps the movie overcome some very clichéd moments as it recounts a tale that most viewers will already be familiar with from other, fictional dramatisations.
Where the story’s familiarity may appear to be a hindrance, the opposite is true. As Layla becomes more and more aware of the role she must play in order to be accepted, we see the decisions she makes and the effect they have on her, and the efforts she goes to in order to live with them. Some are easy (shoplifting clothes), others are more difficult (bonding with Shiree), but Layla approaches them all with a tremulous optimism that everything will work out for the best, even though she clearly has her doubts that this will be the case. Johnson and Sula make Layla’s insecurity and need for acceptance so keenly felt that the viewer can almost forgive her for the fate that eventually awaits Shaun; it’s certainly understandable.
By making Shaun and Layla victims of their own desires, Johnson creates a milieu where the simplest act of affection or friendship can be misconstrued, and with terrible consequences. This would be bad enough if the characters depicted were adults, but Johnson is good at making the tragedy of teenage self-consciousness that much more stark and (seemingly) unavoidable. When Layla makes known her feelings for Troy, it’s with that desperate, needy wish to be noticed that most teenagers go through at some point, and it’s heartbreaking to see someone heading down a path that will ultimately see them place themselves, and others, in jeopardy.
In the main role of Layla, Sula is outstanding, bringing spirit, poignancy and a tempered ambivalence to the role that elevates Layla’s insecurities to a level that further underlines her initial timidity. As she gains in confidence, Johnson cleverly skewers that confidence by having Layla stumble and make mistakes, so that by the time she’s coerced into walking Shaun to an uncertain fate, her complicity in what follows becomes more credible and affecting. Sula is persuasive throughout, giving a polished, intuitive performance that anchors the movie and gives it an additional emotional grounding that becomes more necessary as the movie progresses.
In support, Leviscount is arrogant and charming as Troy, showing the attractive side of his art before revealing the seedier, more misogynistic values he really adheres to. In comparison to Layla, Troy is more of a stereotype, though one can see a hint of the “good guy” he’d like people to believe he can be, or is. Mwanza is diffident and restrained as Shaun, keeping his feelings for Layla bottled up and settling for being with her as an acceptable substitute for being “with” her. And as Shiree, Ryan is on top form as the mother whose idea of parental responsibility is to pretend (for the most part) that she’s not really a mother; her scenes with Sula are subtle and potent all at once.
Filmed on the streets and in the houses of Brixton, Honeytrap is a straightforward though dramatically authoritative movie that tells its melancholy story with a great deal of empathy for its characters, and with a telling sense of its own worth as a (fictional) record of a terrible tragedy.
Rating: 8/10 – not an uplifting or redemptive movie by any stretch, Honeytrap is nevertheless a moody, compelling examination of teenage social exclusion that builds to a dread-filled climax; unapologetically bleak in places, it’s still one of the finest British dramas of recent years and deserving of a much wider audience than it’s received so far.