Review of Karen Skloss’s The Honor Farm

Review by Denise Papas Meechan

The Honor Farm (2017). 74 minutes. Directed by Karen Skloss. Featuring: Olivia Applegate, Louis Hunter, Katie Folger, and Dora Madison.

Still from The Honor Farm

In her feature narrative debut, The Honor Farm, director Karen Skloss skillfully masters the art of seamlessly oscillating the viewer between reality and dream. Her keen hand in using stunningly elegant cinematography—I applaud the choices of director of photography Matthias Grunksy—and subtle envelopes of voice over and hypnotic music helps weave a story of surreal, slow psychedelia, and sets the tone for what is one unearthly voyage into a mind-bending film.

In the first, and one of the most ethereal scenes, teen protagonist, Lucy (Olivia Applegate), floats through a spider web of linens to observe herself in her own rape fantasy. Here Lucy questions in voice over, “How do you know if something’s real? When you wake up, how do you know you’re not still dreaming?”

We’ve all experienced that transitive state between reality and fantasy, unsure of our senses in states of varying consciousness. Our brain and bodies conjure this sense of insecurity to assuage the pains of our reality, and allow us to lull further into the realms of our epicurean dreams. And no one feels the urge of this hedonistic desire to escape more than a teenager does.

In the first act, Lucy floats towards prom night on a cloud of unrealistic teenage expectations. But like most proms, the idea of a life-changing high school dance is a masquerade. Lucy not only has her romantic fantasies of her first sexual experience snuffed out, but is also forced to escape her boyfriend’s attempted rape. However, instead of going to the police, Lucy and her best friend, Annie (delightfully played by Katie Folger), accept an invitation from the clique of high school emo misfits to trip on mushrooms at an abandoned prison known as the Honor Farm.

En route to the prison, and therefore, to the real horror story, the teens stop by a campfire to tell ghost stories—one of Skloss’s many amusing winks at the horror genre. It is here that viewers are drifted back into their high school years and are hit by the frightening awareness that the real terror is not the sinister unseen, but rather the feeling that your life amounts to you getting high at a party full of the goth freaks from your English Lit class. Oh, and your mom calling when you’re tripping. The ’shroom smokers, although socially inept, still maintain the obligatory existential musings of kids on an acid trip. “The air is a web,” “I feel like part of me isn’t made yet,” and “I can feel every star,” are a few of their hallucinatory philosophical introspections.

As they reach the prison, however, I feel that The Honor Farm shies away from some of the cynical humor it had previously so preciously balanced. It instead embraces the horror trope fully. I feel this can be attributed, in part, to separating with Lucy’s best friend Annie, who provided our humorous reflection throughout the film. Applegate completely holds her own as Lucy and is as strong as she is subtle and lovable as an actor. However, her character seems to take herself a little too seriously for the type of film we are watching.

When we arrive at the Honor Farm, Lucy’s goal is streamlined to losing her virginity to the only doable guy in sight, and although steeped in deep self-brooding and an oddly incestual attraction to his cousin, he still seems a better choice than her rapist ex. The farm and its scary urban legend history are a respectful nod to the haunted house trope. The eerie cinematography of the foreboding appearance and seeing our characters trapped among the cement blocked grey walls of the abandoned cells magnifies that creepy hair-standing-on-the-back-of-our-neck feeling that the film evokes throughout.

Skloss is unshakable in her visions for The Honor Farm, taking risks and defying conventions in a way that would scare off much more experienced directors. From the unearthly beautiful fantasy scenes, to the gorgeous waterfall underwater shots, and the whimsical Breakfast Club homage, we wholeheartedly take this head-trip with Skloss. Its superb art direction, acting, music, and sound design place it at a standard above most. It’s a shame this film, which succeeds in delivering such a strong female protagonist and remains female-centric throughout, failed in what would have been an easy opportunity to pass the Bechdel test. The conversations between women were constructed around either men as a whole, or just their penises. And yet, because Skloss is so adept at keeping her characters and viewers drifting between lots of time, plot, reality, and dreamscapes, we are magnetically pulled into her dream world. Although at times her ability to translate that world is a bit shaky, her competence as a filmmaker is clear, and we are certain that the more we see of Skloss, the bolder and even more powerful she will become. The Honor Farm is an enchanting and provocative film that leaves us beguiled by its pure art form and yearning for more work from the spectacular talent behind it.

You can view Denise’s profile here.

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