Cancer is a disease. Depression is a disease. When the former worsens, it ravages its sufferer physically. But when the latter is severe, it’s often invisible. A depressive may not get out of bed much, or shower, or eat. Clean clothes and a comb, however, are usually all it takes for the person to look healthy. So is it fair for a Kevorkian-type angel of mercy to discriminate between the two, aiding one and refusing the other?
That’s the conflict in Honey, actress Valeria Golino’s feature directorial debut that she co-adapted with two other scripters from a novel. The title is the work name of Irene (Jasmine Trinca), a young Italian who helps end the lives of both the terminally ill as well as those who may keep breathing indefinitely, but aren’t really living. Every month, Irene travels to Mexico to buy veterinary barbiturates, telling the pharmacists that she wants to put down her sick dog herself. Back home, she receives assignments via an intermediary, visits her clients and their families a few times to discuss the procedure and make sure the ill are certain of their decision, and brings the music of their choice and anything else they may request to the final meeting.
Irene is kind but disciplined, following the rules of whomever she works for (a neurologist is mentioned, but it’s otherwise unclear if she’s the only foot soldier). She doesn’t actually give the suicidal the drugs—first anti-anxiety, then lethal—but insists on being present to ensure directions are precisely followed; a goodbye note is also required.
Honey’s depictions of these fatal calls are unsurprisingly wrenching. As loved ones weep, Irene watches, in the room but emotionally distant, saying the drugs should take effect in two to three minutes. The film is the inverse of Dallas Buyers Club: Though Irene similarly performs her illegal activities out of compassion, she’s killing people instead of saving them, and she doesn’t get attached. Trinca is in nearly every scene, and she’s consistently fascinating, lending her boyish but beautiful Irene a seemingly neverending preoccupation with what she’s doing. And though the character projects a sense of serenity throughout most of the film, Irene doesn’t hold back when she’s angry. She’s authentic, and you’re in her corner.
Irene’s ease begins to melt, however, when she’s sent to Carlo (Carlo Cecchi). She reluctantly agrees not to be there on the day he decides to die. But when she finds out he’s just tired of living—“I’m brimming with health,” he says—she’s relentless in trying to retrieve the drugs, and an unlikely and sometimes combative friendship results. Naturally, this leads Irene to question herself.
Golino’s debut is a frequently delicate portrayal of a difficult subject. It’s often quiet, with plenty of outdoor scenes drenched in sun. She occasionally gets unnecessarily artsy with her angles, and at one point has Trinca look directly into the camera, which is out of place and distracting. Irene’s confusing personal life may also take you out of the story; she seemingly has two lovers (who look alike), a friend who pops up out of nowhere, and a skiing experience from her past that you assume has been informing her present, though the few flashbacks to it are inexplicable. Honey also ends somewhat sappily, but that’s forgivable considering the handful of unexpected turns it takes along the way. Better yet, the film doesn’t judge. Its message is objectively complex—even if you think Irene is bad, Honey is not.