Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Shia LaBeouf is an interesting case in modern day Hollywood. A talented actor who reached mainstream fame starring in the Transformers franchise, he seemed well on his way to stardom. Then, Transformers started to wane in popularity, he engaged in some odd public behavior and struggled with substance abuse. It seemed as though the chances of him having a significant film career were over. Then 2019 happened. First, he gave a wonderful performance in the feel-good dramedy The Peanut Butter Falcon. His second outing of the year, Honey Boy, is in some ways an even bigger achievement.
The movie, which he began writing while in rehab, is about LaBeouf’s very rocky relationship with his father. He plays his own father in what at times comes off like an 88 minute therapy session (without the end credits). Since he uses fictionalized names, I am guessing part of what is here is not exactly how things went down. Regardless, this is not a narrative biography. It is about what he experienced growing up with this man as he was also trying to start an acting career and the consequences of that on his adult life. Not everything lands, but what does is pretty impressive.
In 2005, Otis, a well-known actor, has an altercation with police and is sent to rehab. While there, he thinks back to 1995, when he was a child actor paying his father to chaperone him on sets, in an effort to get through the issues preventing him from living free.
Whether it is 100% accurate or not, Honey Boy feels like a memoir. It comes off like LaBeouf is exercising some demons by telling this story. Especially when you think about his performance. He is putting himself into his father’s shoes; acting out his motivations, his desires, his resentments. If writing this was cathartic for him, I cannot even begin to imagine how it felt to act it out. His performance is full of anger and regret. Regret for past decisions and anger that life will not let him forget his mistakes. There are moments when you can see the love he has for Otis (or “Honey Boy” as he calls him) and others where he is incapable of giving his son the affection he deserves. He is envious of his son’s success and that jealousy comes out in dangerous ways. LaBeouf’s screenplay sympathizes with Otis, as it should. Yet James is in pain, too. The reckless way James and adult Otis let that out is probably why LaBeouf felt the need to write this in the first place.
The 1995 material, featuring LaBeouf as the father and Noah Jupe as the emotionally desperate young Otis, is much stronger than the 2005 material, starring Lucas Hedges as the older Otis forced to confront his childhood. I am a big fan of Lucas Hedges. He has a great eye for projects and has put in tremendous work in movies like Manchester by the Sea (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), Boy Erased, Ben is Back and this week’s incredible Waves. This is also a very good project, he is just in the less interesting section. What he is learning is how to stop himself from becoming his father before he destroys his future. However, the meaning of all of that is contained in the past. Whenever he shows up, it is like a breather from the tense 1995 scenes. It should feel like a payoff, but it does not. That is the largest thing holding Honey Boy back from greatness.
This is the first fiction film from director Alma Har’el and she keeps things constantly moving by putting us into Otis’ mind. Sometimes it is hard to tell if what we are seeing is memory, dream, fantasy or a scene from one of Otis’ films or TV shows. All of those things seem to have jumbled together for him. This was a child who was asked to be as professional as an adult and then deal with abuse from his father that no child should be subjected to on the side. Har’el and LaBeouf found the right tone for this. It is harrowing and brave. Hopefully, LaBeouf got whatever he needed out of making Honey Boy because, if this year has proven anything, his personal setbacks have done nothing to dilute his talents.
3¾ out of 5
Shia LaBeouf as James Lort
Noah Jupe as Otis (12)
Lucas Hedges as Otis (22)
FKA Twigs as Shy Girl
Laura San Giacomo as Dr. Moreno
Directed by Alma Har’el
Written by Shia LaBeouf