Shia LaBeouf has definitely earned himself some career rehabilitation this year. The first step was his absolutely wonderful performance with Zack Gottsagen in The Peanut Butter Falcon back in August. Now, he’s followed it up with one of the best examples of art therapy in recent memory with Honey Boy. Written by LaBeouf and directed by award-winning documentarian Alma Har’el, one of the most mercurial actors of this generation makes the most of an opportunity to confront his demons and make peace with his past.
Alternating between two significant time periods in his early life, both versions of Otis Lort (I’m guessing names were changed for the purposes of plausible deniability) begin the same way, with an image of the actor being forcibly jerked away from the camera in dramatic fashion, before zooming out and revealing that he’s on a movie set. The first we see is in 2005, where Lucas Hedges plays Otis in the foreground of a bunch of explosions, a seeming nod to LaBeouf’s days in the Transformers movies. In 1995, a 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe, building a stellar CV with each role he plays) gets hit with a massive cream pie that sends him flying backwards as he does “family” fare and movies-of-the-week, presumably a reference to young Shia’s Disney tenure. Both shots set the appropriate tone for everything we’re about to witness, as what appears to be a normal young man is figuratively and literally yanked in different directions by forces not of his own making.
As a young adult, Otis lives life in the fast lane. He embraces his fame, along with the worst tendencies such privilege can offer, namely sex, drugs, and a careless disregard for the safety of himself and others. After a police altercation, he ends up in a rehab facility, where he actively resists the programs and techniques of the staff.
As a child, Otis does his best to live a normal life despite his heavy work schedule, but finds it extremely difficult to find peace of mind under the abusive tutelage of his father, James (Shia himself, playing an exaggerated version of his own father Jeffrey and looking like a burned out John Lennon). A former rodeo clown, James now lives vicariously through his son, enjoying the perks of being a stage dad while at the same time morose at his own failures.
This is where the film exceeds its own mandate, avoiding the trappings of a whiny retrospective to instead become a high form of therapy and introspection. James has many horrible tendencies. He threatens Otis’ “Big Brother” when he comes over for a barbecue. He keeps his son living in a roadside motel where the other inhabitants are drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes. He’s physically and emotionally abusive to his son, while at the same time financially dependent on him. A scene where a crying Otis is forced to be the go-between for his parents loudly and profanely arguing over the phone is one of the most traumatic scenes you’ll find in cinema this year.
But at the same time, there is a healthy dose of nuance to the character. He is extremely flawed, but there are reasons for it, which LaBeouf lets shine through. While none of it excuses his behavior, a scene of James recounting his sins at an AA meeting gives much needed context to his actions, because otherwise he’d just feel like a cartoon villain, with no real dimensions. It also makes things even more heartbreaking when he later goes to a seedy strip club and throws his sobriety away. He is a bad parent, but LaBeouf and Har’el go to decent lengths to show that he is at least trying to be a decent father in his own warped way, for example using an illicit roadside marijuana farm as an oddly appropriate bonding moment between them.
A lot more time is spent on the child Otis rather than the adult, but really, all three lead actors give spectacular performances, and given the career trajectories for Shia’s stand-ins, the experience could serve as a cautionary tale to Hedges and Jupe. What happened to LaBeouf isn’t unique; there are literally dozens of similar stories recounting the fucked up things that happen to former child stars, regardless of adult successes or lack thereof. But that doesn’t mean the knowledge can’t help. When it comes to Lucas Hedges, his star has been rising steadily for the last five years. He just has to make sure it doesn’t go to his head.
But there’s something quite telling about Jupe’s young Otis asserting authority over his own father because he’s the only source of income James will ever have, and his hormone-driven mind makes its own bad decisions independent of his father’s actions, such as treating cigarettes as a rite of passage, or giving money to a hooker (British singer FKA Twigs) who hangs out with him at the motel even though it’s the fact that she doesn’t have to be a prostitute around him that draws her to him in the first place. What he sees as an act of gratitude is at best pity and at worst a reminder of her actual station in life, but she’s thankfully much more forgiving than James. While extreme, moments like these are hopefully signposts for what Noah Jupe should try to avoid.
As performance therapy goes, this film is spectacular. Writing the script for this film as part of his own rehab, Shia LaBeouf is very careful to show his father that while his actions are in no way justifiable, he still understands the position his father comes from, and qualify his humanity. He’s also brutally honest about how his father’s parenting style influenced his own path and the missteps he’s taken. He takes responsibility for who he is, doesn’t let his dad off the hook, and yet still can reconcile his traumas and dramas and come out the other side with a positive outlook. The man has come a long way from his childhood of Holes, his young adulthood of Michael Bay pyrotechnics, and his performance art moments that told everyone there was something not quite right going on under that “I Am Not Famous Anymore” paper bag. This film not only shows that he’s still got it as a performer, but also that he’s reached a level of maturity that a lot of us wouldn’t have thought possible just a few years ago. If 2019 truly ends up being the year of his comeback, I hope he keeps it going well into the future.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you play your own parent in a movie about your life? Wouldn’t you do a bunch of coke if you had to work with a guy who thinks explosions equal plot? Let me know!