Honey Boy movie review: Shia LaBeouf explores the darkest corners of his own emotional inheritance
Honey Boy is many things, from an actor’s autobiography, to an exploration of a deeply troubled father
Honey Boy was screened at Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival.
Shia LaBeouf appears to have written Honey Boy primarily for Shia LaBeouf. That’s not a knock against the film by any stretch; in it, LaBeouf plays a version of his own father, while Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) play versions of the actor himself during pivotal times in his life: his foray into acting as a twelve-year-old, and his spiral and subsequent rehab stint as a young adult. The film reads, first and foremost, like therapeutic self-medication, though director Alma Har'el tenderly extrapolates the healing which LaBeouf so desperately seeks. His catharsis even radiates outward through the screen on occasion, but where Honey Boy succeeds the most is in delivering three — maybe even five — of the year’s best performances.
The film begins with a montage of the years between LaBeouf filming Transformers (2007), his breakout film, and his drunk driving incident in 2008. Hedges plays the older Otis Lort who, for all intents and purposes, is Shia LaBeouf, down to his rapid-fire “No, no, no, no!” as he’s whisked away on pulley during a fiery stunt. The stress of the job gets to him (by this point, it’s been getting to him for quite some time) and Otis’ life in front of and behind the camera begin to blur, in a haze of booze and drugs. One car crash and a run-in with the LAPD later, and he’s ordered to a rehab facility, where his state-mandated psychiatrist tells him he has PTSD. Not from the crash, mind you, but from events and lasting traumas experienced in childhood — events that Otis doesn’t seem to think could’ve left him so broken. “It’s not about my father!” he often repeats.
The rest of the film cuts intermittently between Otis’ difficult recovery, and the earliest days of his acting career. As a child, Otis was accompanied to set by his poor, former convict father James (LaBeouf), with whom he lived at a nearby motel. Noah Jupe stuns as the younger Otis, a wide-eyed, scruffy-haired tween who experiments with cigarettes and grows up faster than he should. It’s an incredibly vulnerable performance, in which Jupe (who spends much of the film shirtless) balances his rising stardom, his budding romance with an adult woman — the thorns of which the film handles deftly — and his domineering father, a broken man who chastises him in one breath and builds him up in the next.
LaBeouf steps bravely in the role of middle-aged James Lort, donning stagelike wrinkle makeup and shaving his head into a balding pattern, which constantly draw attention to his acting experiment. But while the external artifice is always in view, the honesty with which he captures James’ deep-seated pain is nothing short of marvelous. From behind circular glasses and underneath a bandana — he resembles David Foster Wallace more than Jason Segel did in The End of the Tour — James, a former rodeo clown and alcoholic war vet (like LaBeouf’s own father), straddles violent physical presence and emotional absence, with hyper-awareness of both.
James accompanies Otis both for money, and for genuine pride. He also zig-zags between friendly banter and emotional abuse. By embodying his own father at his best and worst, LaBeouf passes down, to the impressionable young Otis, a dry, fast-talking swagger, the kind that the actor would eventually be known for (and the kind that would become the older Otis’emotional armour).
LaBeouf’s James also saddles Otis with festering anger, which builds beneath his façade. In essence, LaBeouf both re-creates the many ways in which he was broken, and empathizes with the man who broke him.
James’ playful teasing occasionally veers into verbal humiliation — locker-room banter about penis size becomes even uglier when applied to a child — and the result of Otis’ emotional repression manifests early on. He forms an uncanny bond with a sex-worker across the street (played by FKA Twigs), a young woman whose isolation reflects his own. She shows him kindness when no one else will, but rather than being able to repay her emotionally, Otis simply places money in her hand, having learned (from his father) that relationships are transactional.
It’s a bold confluence of moments. The scene is contrasted with the older Otis stuck in emotional hell in rehab, struggling to give a voice to his guarded pain. Meanwhile Jupe, as the younger Otis, cozies up to Twigs’ character, in a story beat whose romantic chemistry feels almost dangerous. Jupe is, after all, a child — his mature understanding of the role notwithstanding — but the razor-wire tension of whether Otis will force himself (or be forced) into adulthood through sex is balanced gently, with the clear affection and empathy the two characters share (Har’el is never unaware that this emotional intimacy borders on statutory rape; it’s a line she and her actors walk commendably).
The trio of LaBeoufs — Jupe, Hedges, and LaBeouf himself — are the film’s emotional anchor. But the actors that join them, in smaller roles, speak volumes about experiences like addiction and trauma, and the endless permutations of coping with them. Byron Bowers (The Eric Andre Show) plays Percy, Otis’ kindly, upbeat roommate, who deals with his third stint in rehab by staying afloat through humour, while Martin Starr (Silicon Valley) plays Alec, a stone-faced rehab counselor with whom Otis makes emotional compromises as they figure out a strategy. Both these comedians fit rather differently into the film — Bowers’ Percy is a hilarious ally, while Starr’s Alec is the stoic antagonist — but without ever mentioning it, both men paint the entire history of their characters’ own addictions through withheld eyes, and knowing glances toward Otis that feel like understanding.
The film is peppered with Otis’ dream sequences about his father’s strange career — as a clown who performed acrobatic feats accompanied by a chicken — but it remains, for the most part, within the realm of the natural. During moments of waking, Har’el, cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon) and editors Dominic LaPerriere and Monica Salazarrarely rarely break from the intimate closeups of LaBeouf’s James, as he imparts both wisdom and venom upon his son. LaBeouf’s eyes, welled up with tears he tried so hard to hold back, will linger long in the mind and soul.
James’ various apologies to Otis, and his religious confessions at AA meetings, are deathly sincere, but he can’t escape falling back on his own worst impulses. A hardened man who raises his son with tough love (when he raises him at all), James was born from war, from addiction, and most importantly, from his own broken father. LaBeouf, the writer, provides no answers for how to break this cycle of masculine angst — he needn’t — but as LaBeouf the actor, he explores the darkest corners of his own emotional inheritance. Therein lies the soul of Honey Boy.
The film is many things, from an actor’s autobiography, to an exploration of a deeply troubled father. But it is, above all else, a fascinating therapeutic experiment, in which Shia LaBeouf gives his demons familiar form, while finding ways to forgive them.
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