Telling the story of Morgan (Adriana Mather), a dying girl with three months to live, who falls in love with Jordan (Zach Villa), a gender-bending ex-junkie, “Honeyglue” makes repeated stabs at breaking down the gender binary, but it keeps submitting to the dictates of the squarest form of conventional melodrama. One minute, Morgan and Jordan are robbing convenience stores and contemplating suicide, the next they’re trading romantic platitudes on the beach. While writer-director James Bird’s interest in subverting society’s norms around gender and sexuality seems genuine enough, he goes about it in such maudlin fashion that the film starts to resemble one of those mushy Nicholas Sparks adaptations—a genderqueer “Walk to Remember.”
Though the film is ultimately consumed by its hokier tendencies, Mather and Villa give it life along the way. Jordan is an extremely tricky role, an only-in-the-movies runaway with good skin and perfect hair, but Villa somehow manages to turn him into a credible human being. Mather is saddled with the dying-girl part, the kind of role that usually requires a lot of coughing and sad looks, but Mather really elevates it, turning in a surprisingly nuanced performance, resilient and quirky without becoming cloying. The duo forms a surprisingly potent chemistry that particularly shines in the scenes where Bird puts down his pen and lets the two interact physically. This is the rare film where the best scene may actually be a nudity-free sex scene. Morgan and Jordan, both wearing female undergarments almost merge into a single person in these shots.
Mather and Villa, good as they are, aren’t quite enough to overcome the schmaltz. Bird repeatedly returns to an overwrought children’s story about dragonflies and honeybees written by Jordan. The insect metaphor is painfully overcooked here, leading to an extremely ill-advised shot of clouds at the film’s emotional climax.
Additionally, the environment of the film never seems very credible or lived-in. Neither Jordan nor Morgan seem to have friends. Jordan dwells in a sheet canopy on top of a building with an amazing view of downtown Los Angeles. Morgan is really into Inspector Clouseau. For a film ostensibly attempting a kind of social realism, “Honeyglue often looks and feels like a Hallmark movie.
Maybe there’s something to that, though. Maybe if Bird’s goal is to chip away at deeply held notions about gender and sexuality, the best method is a heaping helping of sickly-sweet honey. “Honeyglue”’s sentimentalism is not my cup of tea, frankly, but if it helps make issues surrounding gender normativity accessible to the sort of people who like “The Notebook,” that’s not such a bad thing.