Fantasia first look: The Honor Farm

A post-prom trip to an abandoned asylum leads to soul-searching and occult weirdness in The Honor Farm

The great American ritual of senior prom and all the pressures that come with it are explored in Karen Skloss’ dream-like, meandering coming of age movie The Honor Farm.

Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) is heading to the prom with her quarterback boyfriend Jake (Will Brittain), who she’s pretty much sure is the one she wants. It should be a magical night, but when Jake gets blackout drunk and can’t control himself, Lucy’s evening is ruined. Rather than head home, her best friend Annie (Katie Folger) convinces her to head into the woods with a group of other students to take shrooms and find a deserted asylum called The Honor Farm.

Although this sounds like the premise for a teen slasher, it should be noted upfront that this is not a path that Skloss and her co-writers Jay Tonne Jr and Jasmine Skloss Harrison are interested in taking. In fact, they don’t seem interested in taking any one path in particular. The teens’ ramblings as they trip balls address everything from grief to repressed desires, and the fact that they are out of their heads allows arguments and love triangles to form, flare and reconcile very quickly.

It doesn’t quite excuse the on-the-nose nature of their conversations, some of which feel a little sub-Breakfast Club, as the popular but spiritually lost Lucy realises that she doesn’t have to take the accepted path, and some of which simply articulate the themes of the movie. “I didn’t think people did rituals anymore,” says one character, and is answered by “What about prom?” But as the film progresses and we click with the mood Skloss creates, there is an appealing blend of sweet and sharp. There’s both a critique of the pressures put on teenagers around events like prom that carry such significant expectations with them, and the joy of a weird night in the woods with a people that you didn’t realise you had so much in common with, with a big dash of occult symbolism stirred in.

The seeming aimlessness of the storyline does mean that Skloss can pull some good surprises. The abandoned asylum is creepy, there’s a ritual that’s unsettling in its total mystery (and use of an animal skull), and the always-brilliant Michelle Forbes (True Blood) is a compelling, if fleeting, presence. However, it does also mean that the film is prone to dragging.

The themes being explored here are potent, and Skloss’ ability to create atmosphere is impressive. There are stand-out moments (particularly the opening dream sequence), and the cast are all very likeable. The Honor Farm doesn’t cut as deeply as you might expect a film in this genre to, and it never hits the horror-Linklater vibe that you want it to, but if you allow yourself to go with it, it’s an intriguing if flawed first feature.

The Honor Farm was seen and reviewed at Fantasia International Film Festival. For more information, visit the website.