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June 3, 2016

We stand now at the break of the latest wave of civil rights activism, this time for transgender people. Trans issues are showing up in the news more frequently than ever, with both legislative gains and stronger conservative push-backs. Leading this groundswell are more trans media representations, with Tangerine and The Danish Girl both getting arthouse releases last year, and critically-acclaimed streaming-TV series Transparent and Orange is the New Black featuring prominent trans characters.

Writer/director James Bird seems to want Honeyglue to join this rising tide, but the execution is thin and lifeless. The “rebellious, gender-defying artist” Jordan (Zach Villa) feels more like a peevish teen provocateur, and dying-girl Morgan (Adriana Mather) provides exactly the cheap, maudlin storyline that movies like The Fault in Our Stars and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl explicitly try to distance themselves from.

Their doomed romance plays out in the three months between Morgan’s diagnosis of stage four brain cancer and its inevitable result. She meets Jordan at a dance club when she told her “conservative” parents (Christpher Heyerdahl and Jessica Tuck) that she was going to a movie; he makes out with her and steals her wallet. And yes, he uses “he/his/him” pronouns, though he also claims stereotypically female-gendered labels like “princess” and later “bride”. The main determinant seems to be whatever he thinks will mess with the people around him at the time.

To be clear, I can get behind the idea that gender is a largely social construct, and that there’s value in sabotaging it — or even just opting out — to whatever extent is possible. I even admit that it’s valid for someone to pick and choose whatever terms work for them. But Jordan’s presentation never quite feels like a lived identity, but rather hovers somewhere around the self-congratulation of a kid who gets his kicks by giving The Man a poke in the eye.

In this story, The Man is mostly represented by Morgan’s family. Her father plays the gruff traditionalist, while her mother is uneasy but more generous, valuing her dying daughter’s happiness over her own ideas of normal behavior. Of course, these are themselves the stereotypical father- and mother-responses to changing social mores; even while he wants to praise Jordan for his rebellion, Bird adheres to his own gendered storytelling tropes.

There’s never really any conflict between the generations, though, and her parents seem totally fine with her lesbian aunt (Kristin Minter), who shows up for one scene to officiate Jordan and Morgan’s wedding. Then again, nothing we see in the course of the movie indicates her sexuality; it isn’t until the credits that we see the woman she danced with for a split second credited as “Aunt Lisa’s Lover”. To get any antagonism we have to wait until near the end of the movie, when we meet Jordan’s caricature of a religious, trailer-park-dwelling conservative mother (a criminally underused Amanda Plummer).

Of course, Jordan isn’t quite the central figure of the story. Viewed through the lens of Morgan’s illness, he’s mostly here to give a frisson of sexual adventure to her last months. Her childhood habit of dressing up as Inspector Clouseau takes on its own queer overtones. So does her eventual baldness after the ineffectual radiation treatments. In fact, there are many fascinating intersections between cancer narratives and gender presentation, none of which is this script remotely able to grapple with.

At every turn, Honeyglue takes the easy road. It’s a story about queer intimacy — complete with the tagline “No Labels, Just Love” — that chooses the mildest possible expression of variant gender and sexuality rather than risk upsetting a generally straight, cis, liberal audience. Jordan is just slightly dangerous, choosing a homeless, “starving artist” life, but of course not nearly so dangerous that he’d consider using drugs like the people around him at the start of the movie. Just enough to quote the idea of rebellion, but not to add any risk to the story.

This cautious, toothless approach carries over into the movie’s direction. Dialogue feels stilted and forced, even from veteran character actors like Heyerdahl and Tuck. The exceptions are a few cutesy film-school touches, which seem mostly to call attention to themselves. One scene circles the dinner table counter-clockwise to build tension before Jordan enters a scene, then circles clockwise to release it after he shows up. And there’s an 8mm camera that Morgan and Jordan use in some sort of artistic affectation, but mostly to provide footage that breaks up the visual monotony.

Maybe a lackluster production could be forgiven if it came in service of a truly challenging and insightful story. Or maybe a cautious, inoffensive melodrama could work if driven by stronger performances and production. But as it stands, Honeyglue never earns the seriousness with which it takes itself.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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