Honey Boy plays like a therapeutic passion project penned by Shia LaBeouf and thoughtfully directed by Alma Har’el. It’s a devastating confrontation of abuse, alcoholism, and the effects of waiting so long before you can find solace for yourself and the need to forgive those whose affection escaped you at every turn. It’s the semi-autobiographical journey of LaBeouf’s relationship with his father over the years he’s been a child actor. The film stars LaBeouf in the shoes of his father, a sloppy, foulmouthed man, while Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges play the two versions of Otis Lort (the fictionalized character of LaBeouf), a child actor who grows up to struggle with his demons later in life. It’s not always an easy watch. In fact, it can be quite hurtful, more so emotionally, but to look away from the film’s sorrow would be doing its angelic, heart-rending core a disservice.
Alma Har’el, who directed the award-winning docu-drama Bombay Beach (2011), has kept a close friendship with LaBeouf, having worked with him on past projects like the painfully real musical short Sigur Rós: Fjögur píanó (2012). Honey Boy was first and foremost a rehab writing assignment for LaBeouf, allowing him to reflect on traumas and find the outlet to address them. The way Har’el and LaBeouf let the poignancy of its script interact with bouts of anger and melancholy is a comfortable middle ground to find this film in. We genuinely feel this boy’s aching heart for the love of his father, who shamelessly takes advantage of his stardom to relive his roadshow heyday. James Lort is an ex-clown road performer, famous for his silly chicken gigs. Though painted out to be a wholly terrible parent, LaBeouf gives his all to this variant of his father in a vulnerable performance.
The film opens as Hedges’ Otis, around the age LaBeouf was working on Transformers, is on set strapped in stunt gear, ready for the otherworldly explosions to go off behind him before leaving set. At this point in life, he’s already started going to rehab, soon to jot his past down in writings. Time moves back and forth as we go back to Otis’ formative child years living with his father. Otis will go from set to home, with little room to breathe as his father keeps him in attitude checks and vies for his son’s love nonetheless antagonizing him at every chance. With no one to confide in, Otis finds an unlikely friendship in a woman (FKA Twigs) who lives in the same motel lot. While his days are spent feeling repressed by the militant ramblings of his messy father, Otis gets these little moments with her to just be a child and laugh. Their relationship becomes the very example of the innocence and comfort that Otis so desperately seeks, and it serves as a sustainable source of love for the story.
As Honey Boy tells this very personal chronicle of trauma, it feels too fragile to revisit. It’s escapist cinematic territory, one that is fruitful in emotional punch and deserving of recognition, although rough to take. It’s a highpoint in LaBeouf’s creative process and will release you from any misconception you may have for his fascinating career. It’s peak self-assured therapy and serves as a reminder that your past can be remedied through art and dissection. LaBeouf is near unrecognizable as he takes on the tough role of his father, a choice that’s imprinted on his excellence as an actor. The loose narrative that finds James continuously protecting Otis while also gaslighting him to keep the love afloat is truly a complicated relationship to maneuver. The chemistry between Jupe and LaBeouf pours through as Otis is put through moments of belittlement, intimidation, and strife. It’s when LaBeouf’s words on paper channel rage that we get to understand his pain.
Honey Boy is guided by LaBeouf’s cathartic script and humanized by Jupe’s magnificent, touching performance and the way he brings nuance and heart to this role of a 12-year-old asking for the unspoken affection of his father. LaBeouf’s vision of his pain and healing is indispensable, quietly crafted through the moments when both Otis and his father are at odds. It’s this heartbreaking dynamic which renders it raw. Again, delicate to revisit, but its mere existence feels like a necessary gift to film.
Directed by: Alma Har’el
Written by: Shia LaBeouf
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs