It would be easy to dismiss Rama Rau’s first non-documentary feature Honey Bee as another melodramatically grim look at the consequences of sex trafficking in North America because it does utilize a lot of narrative convenience as far as driving the plot towards its endgame. Doing so, however, would discount the reason why Bonnie Fairweather and Kathleen Hepburn’s script works this way and why the resulting message is more important than the journey to get there. The whole point of portraying young Natalie’s (Julia Sarah Stone) plight is to provide an example for how the cycle of abuse can be broken. It’s not about piling on the tragedy or sweeping her trauma under the rug for some unrealistic rebirth in the aftermath. It’s about growing, healing, and hope.
The decision to therefore bookend the film with scenes at truck stops is crucial. We must witness just how indoctrinated Natalie is by her boyfriend (actually pimp) Ryan (Steven Love) at the start and how the tiniest thread of humanity can bring someone that far gone back from the edge. And it all stems from love: the kind Natalie is brainwashed into thinking is real and the kind her experiences in the foster care system have incorrectly rendered impossible. Everything relies upon this comparison point. How does a woman sold into prostitution shake her reliance upon a man who makes her believe he loves her to truly see the stakes of her predicament? What must happen to consciously recognize her supposed savior is actually her oppressor?
These are complex questions to which Rau and company supply the space for complex answers from frame one. I say that literally since the film commences with a scene untainted by reality’s horrors. We watch as Natalie gets a tattoo of Ryan’s name on her wrist. We see her genuine smile when he tells her he loves her and gives her a gift. If we didn’t already know what the movie was about, we might even miss Ryan’s domineering attitude continuously popping in just before he remembers to course-correct with comforting assurances that she’s “his girl.” It’s not until the next day when he tells her to hit the semis with the other working girls under his command that we realize it’s all been a twisted mind game.
Just because we get it, though, doesn’t mean Natalie does. Not when the cops scoop her up. Not when child services sends her to Louise (Martha Plimpton) and Christian’s (Peter Outerbridge with nary a line of dialogue) farm. Not when everyone in this new life (that’s hers if she’s willing to embrace it) shows an infinite well of kindness. To Natalie it’s the mirage. A family devoid of abuse? It couldn’t be real. She’d rather skip town before their true colors are revealed and rejoin Ryan (who wasn’t present during the police raid) farther north because she knows him. Sure he asks her to sell her body to strangers, but that’s only “temporary.” She’s willing to do so because he’s promised an end is around the corner.
Ulterior motives are thus always presumed. Louise can’t actually care about her or the others in her house (Michelle McLeod’s Chante and Connor Price’s Matt). She must be doing it for money. Detective Walker (Maurice Dean Wint) can’t be looking out for her best interests when his predecessors always put her places worse than before. He’s only looking to use her as a witness. And pretty boy Zach (Spencer Macpherson) can’t just be out to lecherously weave his way through the teenage girls in class—well, actually, he can be as bad as appearances infer. That he’s here for Natalie to expose (contrasting the others’ altruistic motives), however, is purposeful since transparently seeing him might get her to break through the wall of absolution she’s built around Ryan.
By acknowledging that Zach’s actions victimize young women, maybe she’ll be able to claw through the bullshit Ryan fed her to admit she was too. It won’t be overnight and she’ll have ample time to risk ruining this chance at a “normal” life if Louise ever gets fed up with her rebelliousness, but it may be possible to whittle away at the defenses she built to survive what she’s endured. The only way to know for certain, however, is to end up back where she started with newly opened eyes. Will she inevitably fall back under Ryan’s spell? Or will she notice the strings attached to his broken puppets—of whom she was one? Sometimes you can’t know how bad things are until you’re outside looking in.
That lesson is hard won. Just ask Chante and Matt—two kids who’ve flourished in Louise’s arms even if the scars of their own troubled pasts perpetually rise to the surface. This is key because it reveals that Fairweather and Hepburn haven’t come to the material half-heartedly. They know the psychological damage their characters’ lives have wrought isn’t something that will ever fully disappear. This farm is thus as much a home as it is an unofficial site for group therapy due to none of these kids being alone. When one has a relapse, the other two will be there to help with full knowledge of how bad their pain is. You can’t therefore expect them to be “kids” like their classmates. Innocence cannot be reclaimed.
As I said above, though, hope can. While growth and stability might lay the groundwork for happy endings, nobody’s perfect. And that’s okay when you have the type of tough love steeped in no-strings-attached forgiveness and understanding like that from Louise (Plimpton is great). Having her to contrast the warped memory of life with Ryan still may not be enough when Natalie confronts him again, but its presence increases the odds exponentially. We see this in every rage-fueled tantrum and genuine look of contrition Stone provides her character—another heavy performance for a decade-long resume of tough, authentic dramas for which Honey Bee is one. And despite any contrivances between its identical opening and closing scenarios irrevocably altered by Natalie’s evolved perception, the overall emotional impact is undeniable.
Honey Bee hits VOD on November 10.