Honey Boy | Alma Har’el | November 8, 2019
It seems after so many tumultuous periods of ups and downs in the land of Hollywood, Shia LaBeouf is finally at a good place in life and seems at peace. Which makes the timing of Honey Boy’s arrival completely fitting as a bookend for the first stage of his career and will allow him to move forward with the career that he’s clearly put so much blood, sweat and tears into (as seen in the movie, sometimes quite literally a variation of all three). He wrote the screenplay, basing it about his time as a child actor and the troubled upbringing that he lived outside of the movie sets with his father and how that relationship played a huge role in the self-destructive behavior that seemed ready to derail not only his career but his entire life.
When we first meet Otis (Lucas Hedges), the fictional version of Shia, we meet him at the age of 22 while on set for what looks to be a Transformers film. We see the pain and emptiness that engulfs him and the descent into rock-bottom that awaits. He’s given one last chance to go to rehab and get his life in order and is forced to reflect on his life and what led to him to arrive at this particular juncture of his life.
This allows us to see the much young and more innocent 12-year-old version of Otis (A Quiet Place‘s Noah Jupe) in a different light, wondering how it’s possible for him to have become so unhinged and out of control even after finding so much success in one of the toughest industries in the world to find it. As we quickly learn this is because of his living conditions at a seedy hotel where he is raised by his veteran father James (played by LeBeouf).
This wasn’t a father who hugged him, hell, he didn’t even want to hold his kid’s hands. Instead of showing love an affection, he treated him almost like his peer and their living arrangement was as if Honey Boy (James’ nickname for Otis) was training at boot camp. He gave his son cigarettes, was physically abusive and emotionally abusive to the point where Otis has to turn to a neighbor (FKA Twigs) to find any sort of physical and emotional care. The cruel irony is that James independent of his son’s earnings from his work to survive. He has a troubled past with drugs and a sexual assault charge, which means his son is his only real means to survive and even at 12 Otis is very much aware of this fact which only causes a further fracture and strange dimension to an already troublesome relationship.
But at the same time, LaBeouf doesn’t paint his dad as a villain, instead, he clearly realizes that it’s a man who battled with plenty of demons of his own, many that they probably now share. LeBeouf also reflects upon his own misdeeds and threads the needle to see the connection between their lives, even with one finding the success that the other never could’ve imagined. His dad’s version of love wasn’t the one that you see on TV, but he did have his own way of showing it.
While some scenes of Otis going to work and then receiving the blunt end of his father’s fury can be repetitive and familiar at times, Har’el directs Shia’s reflections in a tender way that hits you hard with a bittersweet melancholy. For anyone with a fractured relationship with their father (raises hand), there will be many tough moments that are shared between the two that will hit you closer than others. Some are truly difficult to watch unfold by Har’el frames it all in a way that is intense but also thoughtfully handled. There’s a dreamy nature to it all that is captured well by cinematographer Natasha Braier and heightened further by composer Alex Somers that help it come to the subtle but overwhelming emotional conclusion that hit me harder than I ever could’ve expected.
Young Noah Jupe captures the innocence of 12-year-old LaBeouf while also finding a way to showcase the hints of rage and fury that would soon bubble over in his years as an adult. The actor goes toe-to-toe with the real-life LaBeouf who gives the performance of his career as his father and has some awards attention cast on him for good reason. Although more underused, Lucas Hedges is strong as the older version of Otis, and FKA Twigs brings an empathetic and ethereal presence to her performance who does a lot with so little, an impressive feat considering she is is her feature film debut. Also much more underused, Clifton Collins Jr., Martin Starr, and Byron Bowers all shine in their small but important roles.
Honey Boy may play as too familiar to other films about the rough relationship between a father and a son but the reflective personal touch from LaBeouf’s screenplay and the thoughtful direction from Har’el, along with the heartbreaking turns from both Jupe and LeBeouf made Honey Boy a sublime experience that found some real truths and did it in a fashion that felt raw, vulnerable, and true.