The directorial debut of Rebecca Johnson is lready winning awards in London, making it’s US debut this week at SXSW. It is based on the 2008 “honeytrap” murder of Shakilus Townsend, but told through the eyes of Layla (Jessica Sula), whose character is based on Samantha Joseph, the 16 year old at the center of the “honeytrap” murder. Before viewing the film, I looked into the events it’s based on, and I can honestly say that Sula’s character Layla is much easier to sympathize with. There’s a sadness felt as soon as Layla appears on screen. She’s neglected, yearns for an emotional attachment to her mother, with whom she is living with after 10 years in Trinidad, suffering neglect and abuse from her Grandparents. She draws, admires Beyonce, wears jeans and t-shirts, and does her chores. She wears cartoon pajamas. There is a sweet optimism and shyness to her. She is, for the most part, a typical 15-year-old girl.
The turning point in her story is when the staff at her new school informs her that her spot has been given to another student, because her mother, Shiree (Naomi Ryan), didn’t fill out the proper forms. Instead of attending a well kept, academic based, uniform wearing school, she must now attend her inner city neighborhood high school. Filled with cameras, metal detectors and useless staff, the shy and modest Layla is no match for her new environment. Desperate to fit in, she changes her manner of dress, begins shoplifting, ditching school and doing drugs. During most of the movie, Sula portrays with great believability the underlying fear Layla has every time she takes another step down the wrong path. It’s during an afternoon of ditching school when she first meets Shaun, played by relative newcomer Ntonga Mwanza, whose character is based on Townsend. Shaun is instantly smitten, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Layla. That same day, she meets Troy (Lucien Laviscount), a local gang member and rapper, based on convicted murderer Danny McLean. She nervously attends his video shoot, catching his eye. Layla eventually believes that she is Troy’s girlfriend. Upon being confronted with the truth, she is humiliated, beaten and broken. All the while, apparently, Shaun is at her side. I say apparently, because we are never really given a character development for Shaun, we have no idea why he and Layla are close. Despite this, Shaun is the only person she trusts enough to come clean to about her family. Until the very last scene of the movie, Layla is a sympathetic character; I kept wondering how Townsend’s family would feel about this.
After Layla and Troy get together, I start to have problems with the film. First, Troy and Shaun are not well developed. There are a few moments when Shaun is charming, but not enough for the viewer to understand why Layla is so smitten by him, that make him anything other than eye candy. He is, simply, the bad guy, and it is nothing against Laviscount’s portrayal of the character. This is also where Layla begins having dreamy flashbacks…to earlier in the day…always of Troy’s face. Unnecessary, as the viewer can easily see Layla’s feeling for him without these, which usually end in random shots at the sky, leaves, etc. They are very Lifetime Original Movie in feel. The movie is only an hour and a half long, I think omitting these artistic shots and replacing them with actual dialogue would have better served Sula’s portrayal of Layla, or could have been used to better develop Shaun or Troy. Although we do not see a lot of Shiree, we are at least offered enough about her past and her current relationship to know her.
The music is barely noticeable throughout, despite the fact that Troy is a rapper, and Layla sketches Beyonce. Some of the dialogue was hard to hear/understand. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to British street slang, maybe the sound is muddled. I would recommend the movie, if anything, for Sula. If you are a fan of true crime dramas, like I am, check out BBC Three’s My Murder, based on the same case.