For a film about throwing caution to the wind and bucking conventions, “Honeyglue” diligently adheres to clichés, many of them borrowed wholesale from 2002’s Nicholas Sparks adaptation “A Walk to Remember.” Writer-director James Bird’s sophomore feature (following “Eat Spirit Eat”) is a tale of fatally ill girl meets cross-dressing boy that treats progressive ideals and death as equally manipulative dramatic devices. Save for those capable of blinding themselves to its creaky contrivances, audiences will likely have little tolerance for this gravely by-the-books indie.
Morgan (Adriana Mather) is dying of an incurable brain tumor, which has left her father Dennis (Christopher Heyerdahl), mother Janet (Jessica Tuck) and brother Bailey (Booboo Stewart) — who’s of Asian descent, and thus emblematic of the clan’s multicultural mindset — in suspended misery. No matter her dire circumstances, however, Morgan is rejuvenated when, at a nightclub, she meets Jordan (Zach Villa) and immediately falls for him, this despite (or, as it soon turns out, because of) the fact that he’s wearing a woman’s wig, dress and make-up.
The next morning, Jordan (who lives in a colorful canopied bed on an apartment building rooftop) appears on her doorstep in a kilt, and promptly discovers that Morgan shares with him not only a birthday, but also a quirky gender-bending spirit — which in her case, entails dressing up like “The Pink Panther” Inspector Clouseau. Invited to stay for dinner, Jordan is quickly, and rudely, assaulted with closed-minded questions from Dennis. It’s at this early stage that “Honeyglue” devolves into didacticism, resembling Kevin Smith’s 1997 “Chasing Amy” in its desire to educate audiences about, and preach acceptance of, its character’s alternative lifestyle in the most prosaic, schoolmarmish way possible.
Leaden exposition infests Bird’s screenplay, which further underlines Jordan and Morgan’s girl-boy/boy-girl natures by having characters remark upon the protagonists’ fondness for (or disinterest in) playing with dolls as kids. The film’s ham-fisted storytelling, however, is truly epitomized by recurring narrated readings from an illustrated fairy tale written and drawn by Jordan (who dropped out of art school because he couldn’t “play by their rules”) that concerns the cross-species love affair between a dragonfly boy (i.e. Morgan) and a princess queen (Jordan).
Those twee interludes serve as unnecessary reiterations of the material’s be-who-you-want-to-be ethos, which is noble in the abstract but rendered with clunky, preachy earnestness. The film’s cutie-pie identity role-reversals are so incessant — peaking with Morgan and Jordan getting hitched in matching vintage wedding dresses — as to be mind-numbing. By the time the couple sport identical shaved heads and tattoos (the latter idea taken directly from Sparks’ predecessor), the film has become a one-note sermon, stating the same thing over and over again in only superficially altered form.
It doesn’t help that Mather’s performance, which goes from tentatively cheery to speech-slurring despondent, is stilted and unconvincing, nor that Villa’s co-headlining turn exudes an off-putting degree of smirky smugness. Like their supporting cast, they’re wooden in roles that have been written in a single dimension. All the while, Bird follows a musty indie playbook, from romantic candlelit baths set to soft crooning music, to overnight slumber parties on the beach, to jokey convenience-store robberies, to Morgan’s habit of recording everything — including an incoherent doctor-kidnapping bit that frames the narrative — with her 16mm camera.
Amanda Plummer eventually appears as Jordan’s blinkered trailer-park mom, who slanders her son for not being manly or normal enough, and she helps complete the film’s transformation into a borderline-parodic combination of dying-girl romantic comedy and liberal-minded message melodrama. Throughout, Bird’s visuals are consistently flat, and his habit of cinematographically spinning around his characters (at a dinner table, on a dance floor, in a field) is dizzying in an unpleasant, nausea-inducing way — thus creating a fitting marriage of form and content.