By JENN ADAMS
ROYAL JELLY begins as a horrific Cinderella story. Outcast Aster (Elizabeth McCoy) is a teenaged beekeeper mourning the loss of her mother from whom she inherited the unusual hobby. Fleeing from her evil stepmother and half sister, she escapes under the wing of Tresa (Sherry Lattanzi), a substitute teacher grooming her for a mysterious purpose. What initially seems like a pastoral utopia at a remote farm takes a nightmarish turn and Aster must escape Tresa’s cult before falling victim to their sinister plans. It’s an intriguing premise from writer and director Sean Riley (Fighting Belle), but there is no honey in this hive. Sloppy execution, stilted performances, and an incoherent story keep this feminist fairy tale from ever taking flight.
Queen bees occupy a unique space in the animal kingdom, their life-cycle perfect for feminist allegory. According to Aster’s class presentation, the insect begins life from the same larvae as any other female bee. Ingestion of a substance called royal jelly activates a different type of cell development and she ascends to her position in the hive, killing other female rivals along the way. The potential for a powerful tale of matriarchy is abundant, but slavish devotion to the metaphor mixed with tired genre clichés get in the way. ROYAL JELLY wants to be a female coming-of-age story by transforming Aster from a quirky loner to a radiant queen, surpassing high school mean girls and her cruel stepmother. But the film never seems to understand it’s own story and quickly becomes a confusing mess with a few distasteful stingers along the way.
McCoy competently plays Aster as a shy girl resigned to her loser status, a Cinderella figure in her blended family. But save for her father, played by (Jonas Chartock), hers is the only remotely believable performance. Blame it on clunky dialogue or a jumbled story but nothing the teenager does or goes through seems to exist in the world of plausibility. The plot swings wildly through vaguely connected events, losing entire subplots and character developments within the poorly constructed narrative.
The story hinges on Tresa, a mysterious mother figure who appears out of nowhere and befriends Aster. But this relationship feels forced and inappropriate from the start and Aster’s willingness to abandon her entire life to join a clearly manipulative stranger strains even the edges of logical reason. It’s also never clear what Tresa’s motivations are. Is she the queen bee of her hive? Is she grooming Aster to take her place, intentionally orchestrating her own murder? Who are these mysterious sons she thrusts at Aster? Why are they suddenly vampires? The convoluted story tries so hard to be revelatory that it forgets to make sense.
What promises to be a transformational tale of feminist rage fails to deliver on either front. With ambition too big for its budget, the effects are weak at best and barely make sense with the narrative. Scenes of Aster making honey are fascinating and beautifully shot, but shaky camera work and clumsy directing lead to a disjointed story that never finds its footing. The effects that do work are quite tasteless. One segment features a feral child, pregnant and suffering vaginal bleeding while tied to a chair. Her captors joke about late term abortions while pointing a shotgun at her. She’s then murdered by a stab wound to her pregnant belly. Forced procreation and virgin queens may be an element of insect life, but they become extremely offensive and off-putting when applied to human behavior. These villainous actions could be justified if the plot actually made sense, but it’s never clear why this young girl is tortured and how her story relates to Aster’s in any way.
Some independent films are able to overcome a low budget and novice skill, producing lightning in a bottle and exuding the raw power of creativity. ROYAL JELLY is not one of them. Promising feminist empowerment, it dies under the crushing weight of poor taste and clunky execution. Perhaps if condensed into a short film, its intriguing message could come through more clearly, but what we’re left with here is little more than a sticky mess.
ROYAL JELLY is on demand and digital now from Uncork’d Entertainment.