Like just about every other movie over the last year, Honeydew’s journal to any screen took a few turns. After COVID forced the cancellation of the Tribeca Film Festival, writer and director Devereux Milburn’s first feature-length movie debuted at a smaller festival before a VOD release in early 2021. From the production arm of Bloody Disgusting, Honeydew looks like a more arthouse take on backwoods rural horror. How well Milburn navigates such well-trodden territory has divided critics.
Botanist PhD student Rylie and her aspiring actor boyfriend Sam take off for the countryside to study a fungus destroying wheat crops. When they get lost, the couple sets up camp in a field for the night. But when a farmer turns up asking them to get off his property, Rylie and Sam seek shelter with a eccentric elderly woman and her mute son. The quaint farmhouse’s hospitality, however, slowly gives way to disquieting events. Yet despite the warning signs, Rylie and Sam indulge in their host’s homecooked meals, closing the door to any chance of ever escaping.
Honeydew Has Rich Atmosphere But Can’t Hide Familiar Roots
Immediately, writer an director Devereux Milburn establishes Honeydew’s eccentric style and tone. Honeydew introduces us to all of its main characters in a fashion best described as ambiguous and quirky. Throughout the movie, Milburn also uses several interesting techniques – including split screens and long takes – to add a distinct atmosphere. From the cinematography to its soundtrack, one can’t argue that Honeydew looks cheap or lacks style. In fact, Milburn pours authentic atmosphere into his picture. Instead, Honeydew suffers from one major problem – it tries too hard to avoid inevitable comparisons. Despite Milburn’s best effort to elevate things to arthouse craft, Honeydew is yet another take on rural hillbilly horror.
Instead, Honeydew suffers from one major problem – it tries too hard to avoid inevitable comparisons.
What’s fascinating is just how many of the subgenre’s tropes it relies on even as it tries to be something else. We’re still treated to an educated, middle-class Zoomer couple running afoul of rural country folk cannibals. Though it meanders and tosses out a variety of eccentricities, we still end with the expected grotesque final act. Along the way, there’s an air of pretentiousness as Milburn tries very, very had to ‘fancy up’ the movie. Convulsing characters, bizarre hallucinatory dreams, tinny Christmas music, retro cartoons on vintage TV screens – the only ones who don’t seem to get how strange everything is are the main characters themselves. By the time a limbless Lena Dunham shows up in a box it’s too late to bail on the movie.
Unlikable Lead Characters and Questionable Decisions Leave Audiences Little to Invest In
Arguably, Honeydew’s most frustrating contradiction between its ambitions and what’s on screen is the story itself. There’s some genuine craft here but Milburn’s story requires its characters to make obviously stupid choices. For the entirety of its lengthy middle act, Rylie and Sam witness repeatedly bizarre behaviour. Any logical person would be running out the door. This isn’t so much a movie that has you screaming at the screen as it has you sighing and shaking your head. But if the characters left, we wouldn’t have a movie. And that probably best sums up the story’s logic.
…Rylie and Sam are rather off-putting.
If poor choices aren’t enough, Honeydew doubles down with two very unlikable lead characters. Neither Rylie nor Sam are likely to elicit any sympathy from audiences. Both Malin Barr and Sawyer Spielberg (yes, son of that Spielberg) are quite good in their respective roles. But as they’re written, Rylie and Sam are rather off-putting. Once Rylie announces she’s vegan, that’s probably the only strike you need against her. As the elderly and eccentric Karen, Barbara Kingsley chews up the scenery in the movie’s best role. To her credit, she makes her slow-moving octogenarian more creepy than you’d expect from her introduction. Kudos to anyone who can figure out the purpose of the sporadically appearing ‘Thin Young Man’.
Honeydew Can’t Transcend Its Subgenre Roots Despite Best Efforts
Though it would be easy to dismiss Honeydew out of hand, Milburn shows enough talent and vision to at least make this a morbidly curious watch. Cleary, there’s skill evident in how Milburn draws out the most simple of scenarios into some truly suspenseful moments. And Honeydew succeeds in eliciting quite a bit of discomfort. Yet scrape away the arthouse pretensions and Honeydew is still just another rural hillbilly horror movie. Even if the tropes are dressed up, it’s akin to ‘putting lipstick on a pig’.