Any film about a person with three months left to live has to fight really hard to keep the heavy-handedness at bay. Honeyglue’s strategy for surviving its inherent clichés involves pairing a dying girl, Morgan (Adriana Mather), with a gender-bending writer, Jordan (Zach Villa), who has a penchant for wearing skirts, burgundy-colored lipstick, and jotting down reveries about honeybees. The film begins not unlike Don’t Call Me Son, which is also about a cross-dresser with uncatalogable sexual desires, as a wigged-out Jordan flirts with Morgan at a club only to receive a barrage of uncalled-for questions: “Are you a boy or a girl?” and “Are you gay? It’s okay if you are.”
There’s enough drama in Honeyglue’s supposed dissymmetry between girly boy meets girly girl, which writer-director James Bird spoils by quickly taking us away from the strangeness of a dance floor where anything seems possible to a suburban American home where Morgan lives with her parents and brother, none of whom have a problem hurtling their transphobia at her new boyfriend, from “What kind of statement are you trying to make by wearing a skirt?” to “I’d hardly call him a guy.”
If Anna Muylaert had the intellectual decency and artistic insight to keep ambiguous gender expression opaque and devoid of justification in Don’t Call Me Son, Bird devotes a good chunk of his film to offer a genesis for Jordan’s gender fluidity: an at-once permissive, misanthropic, poverty-stricken, and estranged mother. Perhaps the filmmaker meant to pit Morgan’s terminal condition and Jordan’s queerness as mirroring metaphors, but they seem to belong to completely different films, one diluting the seriousness of the other, as a chaotic medley of empty signifiers that finds its grotesque zenith when Jordan shaves his head in order to match Morgan’s cancer aesthetics.
The look of cancer is here turned into just that, a demystified look, as Honeyglue is more interested in borrowing the disease as a narrative shorthand for intensity than investigating terminal cancer as a lived experience. This is also a film that introduces a subplot about violent Hispanic thugs being on Jordan’s case for money that he owes them and characters share lines like “Love stories are the only stories worth telling.”
There’s one scene in Honeyglue, though, that points to an enchanting film that could have been. Morgan and Jordan are having a drink at a pub; she wears a Chaplin-like hat and moustache and he dons a jet-black wig that makes him resemble Pulp Fiction’s Mia Wallace, or The Doom Generation’s Amy Blue. For a moment, we see two people embodying a concept without having to spell it out. It’s a fascinating image that requires no high stakes, no illness, and no conflict to support itself. We’re seduced by the unlikeliness of the costumes, the jukebox in the room, the uncanniness of staring at an Uma Thurman or Rose McGowan lookalike in drag. All of which gets interrupted by the film’s inability to survive without visual and recited truisms, with Morgan telling Jordan, “Today is all that counts. Tomorrow doesn’t matter.”