HONEY BEE (Rama Rau). 93 minutes. Opens Friday (September 20). See listing. Rating: NNNN
I really liked Honey Bee when I caught it at the Canadian Film Fest earlier this year, and I’m glad it’s finally getting a theatrical release now. The first dramatic feature from documentarian Rama Rau, whose nonfiction credits include League Of Exotique Dancers and The Daughter Tree, it’s a simple, straightforward drama about a teenage sex worker given the opportunity to reinvent herself, and not doing terribly well with it.
Actually, “sex worker” isn’t the right term for Natalie (Julia Sarah Stone); if anything she’s a trafficked teenager, groomed by her ostensible boyfriend Ryan (Steven Love) and sent out to work a truck stop with her sister-girlfriends. It’s not a good life, but Natalie doesn’t see it that way. And when she solicits a cop and gets arrested, she refuses to give Ryan up.
Natalie’s a minor, so she’s placed with a foster family in Northern Ontario, and that’s where Honey Bee really begins. The script, written by Bonnie Fairweather (Heartland) and Kathleen Hepburn (who was just at TIFF with The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open), is a straightforward look at how its protagonist finds her way back to herself once she’s removed from her old life – and whether she even wants to.
Natalie’s foster family is genuinely nice – the parents (Martha Plimpton, Peter Outerbridge) have helped troubled teens before, and their other kids (X Company’s Connor Price, Don’t Talk To Irene’s Michelle McLeod) are pleasant and non-threatening. Natalie can’t see that; she sees herself as a prisoner, and everyone around her as a potential threat. It makes high school particularly difficult.
Honey Bee – which takes its title from the pet name Ryan gave Natalie when they first got together – doesn’t break new ground for this sort of drama, but it distinguishes itself in its slow accumulation of small moments.
Rau and her writers aren’t out to sensationalize or exploit the story. Mostly, the narrative plays out through Natalie’s interactions with the teens and adults around her, letting us notice how she responds to this comment or that offer of help, moving imperceptibly forward in her recovery – or backsliding badly.
Stone, who at 21 has already built an impressive body of work in Canadian indies like Wet Bum, Weirdos and Allure, is as good as she’s ever been in this movie, physically conveying Natalie’s constant fight-or-flight state while still showing us the scared, vulnerable kid trapped inside it. Honey Bee is all the stronger for having her at the centre of it.