The visionary work of female directors is finally starting to reach the acclaim that women in film have deserved for a long time. Carrying the experience and talent from her work in documentaries, music videos and commercials on her shoulders as she steps into the area of feature-length directing is the formidable Alma Har’el with Honey Boy (2019). It is a phenomenal debut feature which revisits the childhood pain and trauma of a young actor through flashbacks, dual narratives of his life and the blending of therapy and art to seek reconciliation for one’s suffering. The Israeli-American director is a beacon of resilience for female filmmakers, with Honey Boy winning the DGA Award for First-Time Feature Film. Har’el is the first woman to ever receive this.
Har’el’s entrance into the world of moving image came from working with the band Beirut by directing their music videos that reflected her dream-like style and passion for conveying deep emotions. Evidently choosing not just to break the mould, she ventured into documentary filmmaking with California-based Bombay Beach (2011), winning Best Documentary at Tribeca Film Festival that year. The burst-out dance sequences and hazy surrealism has become a trademark aesthetic for Har’el, and her understanding of working with subjects in documentary paved the way for her fiction feature.
Honey Boy’s central star Shia LaBeouf initially performed in Har’el’s music video for Icelandic rock-band Sigur Rós, and was later an executive producer for her 2016 documentary LoveTrue; the start of their working relationship. LaBeouf’s fame as an actor has been varied yet rocky, varying from the loveable goofball in Even Stevens (2000)to his iconic role as Sam in the Transformers franchise, and eventually boarding onto arthouse films such as Nymphomaniac (2013) and The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019). Yet few know about his childhood, which is where it became evident that Har’el was the perfect person to tell his story.
Based on the autobiography of LaBeouf, Honey Boy looks at his relationship with his abusive alcoholic father as he enters stardom and exposes the assumptive glamour behind the Hollywood lens. The young protagonist Otis (a fictionalisation of Shia) is played by Noah Jupe at the age of 12, beginning to navigate his way as a child actor, and then at the age of 22 by Lucas Hedges with his acting career on hold while he enters rehab.
The script for Honey Boy was penned by LaBeouf during his time in therapy, unfolding the layers of complexity Otis has with his father James, whose parenting skills leave little to be desired. LaBeouf takes up the role of James, who attempts to hold a torch under his past as a Clown performer through the flames of his son’s new filmic success. Embodying the role of his own gas-lighting parent and speaking back to his younger self, who is clearly craving unrequited affection, cannot have been easy. It is a precarious balance of fictional biography fueled by emotional turbulence; a nuance carried by Har’el’s directive hand.
She has been able to temper the moments in which LaBeouf is essentially confronting his younger self in Otis, and finds the perfect tone and pace to carry this open-caged heart of vulnerability. Her process of getting involved with the actors by trying to understand them has paid off immensely, as both Hedges and Jupe give outstanding performances alongside LaBeouf. Har’el’s understanding of the cuts in the editing process are so meticulous, conveying the nuanced relationship while also delving into James’ past. In one scene, it is understood that Otis’ father’s behaviour stems from his own neglect as a child, and how the love for Otis exists but is clouded by his own unresolved issues. It flows with compassion and acknowledgement that these characters are only human at the core.
Her directive style is reflective of her documentary work, as she follows her characters around at a distance, allowing the uncomfortable atmosphere to consume the viewer, yet allowing the story to follow as they process their emotions. The story captures the dusk-lit fights and painful moments of loneliness, reminiscent of the dream sequences in her music videos yet also ensuring that these scenes do not become overtly overwhelming. Har’el’s experienced hand behind the camera is nothing short of exceptional, as she respectfully and carefully unravels the twine of LaBeouf’s complex past.
LaBeouf’s father was also reportedly a drug trafficker and heroin addict, and Shia himself fell into the clutches of alcoholism, being arrested for disorderly conduct on numerous occasions in later life. With this being a fiction feature that carries the weight of a real-life story, this genre of film unlocks a level of certainty not always guaranteed with documentaries.
Honey Boy feels like a sea-change for Shia LaBeouf, in many ways juxtaposing his Hollywood career to date. It was an industry that gained him international recognition, and with this exposure came the removal of privacy. The general public hear news stories of rising stars struggling with the lifestyle change of fame and recognition, occasionally posting about their pasts with the passing of time encouraging moments of self-reflection. LaBeouf’s crippling mental health, run-ins with the law and artistic stances in his years of adulthood reveal his suffering, and Honey Boy acts as a cathartic release from this.
The yearning for a relationship between a father and son is in some ways healed, as we see a parent riddled with his own damage clumsily try to relate to his son; Otis clings to these moments of humour and rare tenderness. Dysfunction runs riot in the narrative, exemplifying the character’s emotions and disarming any preconceptions the audience have about LaBeouf. Between the twilight settings of neon-motel lights, close-ups of teary eyes and the melodic tempo of the score, Har’el paints an aesthetically stunning portrait that does not glorify anyone’s bitter pains.
Credit is also due in that she is able to redefine the misconceptions behind PTSD, capturing the agonizing process Otis endures as an adult, and how trauma can affect anyone. And yet while the ending is tied up, it doesn’t feel complete – which suggests that this was only the start of the healing process. While there may not have been the intentions to help others, what Har’el and LaBeouf have created is a dialogue that looks addiction and abuse face-on, and takes their hands, letting them know they are not the sole architects of their pain; an impressive feat for a debut feature film.
It is without a doubt that Alma Har’el is an exceptional director, who has now broken ground across the different cinematic genres and helped develop the landscape for other newcomers, while also paving the walkway for female directors to gain the recognition they deserve in a patriarchal gate-kept industry. Her ethos for equality and diversity only contributes towards her hard-working mantra, exemplified in 2016 when she founded ‘Free The Bid’, a network for female filmmakers and under-represented creatives that opens a dialogue with producers, studios and agencies, and advocates for over 2,000 underrepresented filmmakers in 21 countries. It is therefore of little surprise that Har’el has created an incredible piece of work with her debut that is devoid of ego and bares a soul searching for empathy and reconciliation. A project like this may not seem monumental, but it has showcased the directing talents of Alma Har’el. One can only expect the same level of emotive temperament in her future work.