Devereux Milburn’s debut feature is full of slow burn chaos and Honeydew drips with uneasiness. The film might be too weird and slow for some, but within beats a deliciously wicked heart and it might even prove bizarre enough to garner a small cult following.
Sam (Sawyer Spielberg and yes, they’re related) and Rylie (Malin Barr) are a bickering, seemingly unhappy couple on a road trip. They camp out on a field one night but are asked to leave by a grumpy old man named Eulis, who owns the land. The couple quickly find solace with Karen and her disabled son. Karen promises to arrange help, but when help never arrives, the couple accept the invitation to stay for the night and Sam especially is excited to be enjoying Karen’s cooking. This starts a long and disturbing night for Sam and Rylie and you can expect surprises galore.
Milburn directs Honeydew with a steady hand, but occasionally dips into self-indulgence. Honeydew feels overdrawn, a 90-minute film needlessly stretched to 107 minutes for the sake of a few extra trippy scenes that undeniably add to the mood of the film but do very little in terms of effectiveness or plot direction. The script, also written by Milburn, is often clunky and the dialogue comes across as awkward and the words never fall out of the actors’ mouths believably.
Spielberg is off-putting and cold as Sam, but one suspects this might have been intended. Honeydew will probably draw comparisons with Ari Aster’s Midsommar, which also included an unpleasant boyfriend, but whereas Midsommar was essentially a film about a break up, Honeydew has no such ambitions. Barr’s Rylie fairs better but ultimately, both characters are simply too unlikable, and it makes it hard to root for their survival.
The highlight of the film is Barbara Kingsley who plays Karen with glee and a sense of fun. Her performance is as physical as it is emotional and the actress’ range here is impressive as it is impeccable. Honeydew also features questionable representation of disabled people through Karen’s son Gunni. He is an overweight, sloppy and near-mute middle-aged man who sits at the table watching children’s cartoons while sucking on lemon wedges dipped in sugar while his elderly mother cooks for him. While Honeydew is inspired by the rural horrors of the 70s and 80s, especially The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this stereotype would have been better left in those films.
For all its faults, Honeydew looks and sounds stunning. Dan Kennedy’s cinematography is simply gorgeous, and on top of writing and directing, Milburn also edits here, creating a sharp, yet hypnotic look and rhythm to Honeydew. John Mehrmann’s score is immersive and unsettling, matching with Kennedy’s visuals. Honeydew is often more style than substance, but when it’s this stylish, it’s hard to care. For all its style, there is plenty brewing under the surface too, but the themes are never realised well enough. Rylie is investigating a fungal infection that occurs in wheat and has devastated the community and Milburn utilises a familiar country vs. city set up, but never develops his themes enough to give the audience something to think about.
Honeydew isn’t the masterpiece it wants to be, but there is plenty of promise here for Milburn. He’s clearly talented and Honeydew is at times a challenging watch. It’s a film that asks and demands much of the viewer but gives very little back. It has moments of pure brilliance, but is often let down by the aimless, unfocused narrative or the wooden performances.
Honeydew is available on digital March 29.