Honey Boy, 2019.
Directed by Alma Har’el.
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, and Noah Jupe.
A young actor’s stormy childhood and early adult years as he struggles to reconcile with his father and deal with his mental health.
Braced somewhere between film-as-therapy and surreal performance-art project, Honey Boy is a Shia LaBeouf-penned collaboration with Alma Har’el (Bombay Beach), not-so-loosely adapted from his own young life growing up in the entertainment industry.
The film’s very first sight is that of an early-20s LaBeouf – or Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges), rather – rigged up for a stunt in what’s clearly a gossamer-thin stand-in for one of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. This is right down to the familiar modulated sound effects for one of the titular robots, which stays off-screen for obvious reasons.
A quick succession of other sights will be familiar to anyone with much knowledge of the actor’s troubled personal life, namely liquor-soaked booze sessions and an infamous car accident he had while shooting Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which required the production to work LaBeouf’s injured hand into the script.
Otis then lands himself in rehab, at which point he reflects on a younger period of his life, specifically as his 12-year-old self (Noah Jupe) ekes out a grim existence in a grotty motel, trying to break into Hollywood with his pushy father James (who, in a brilliant move, is played by LaBeouf himself).
This is, obviously, a deeply personal film for LaBeouf, an actor who has made increasingly intriguing career choices in recent years, far away from his well-minted days as the next big thing in Hollywood blockbuster fare. But it hasn’t taken much reading between the lines to appreciate an inner darkness in the man’s life, one which he explores with thoughtful aplomb throughout this quasi-biopic.
That darkness is embodied perhaps no more succinctly than older Otis’ evident self-loathing, referring to himself in a therapy session as a “professional schizophrenic,” noting the paradox of his profession being at least the partial cause of and possible therapeutic solution to his mental health issues.
Despite this clear heaviness, Honey Boy proves a surprisingly funny jaunt, though anyone who’s seen an interview with LaBeouf will appreciate his droll approach to both his successes and failures, so perhaps it’s not too surprising. There’s a recurring gag of peak surrealness where older Otis dreams about his father’s old rodeo clown routine involving a daredevil chicken – and better still, the chicken even gets her own delineated shout-out in the movie’s end credits sequence.
Even with its deeply trenchant examination of the toils of a young actor’s life and the residual scars which remain, the film is largely a showcase for its three central performers. Hedges gets the smallest part of the trio, yet brilliantly captures the exasperated anger that his Otis simply cannot keep a lid on.
In one brilliant moment, he mentions the utility of pain as a creative tool, and expresses the fear he feels about therapy or “healing” taking that away from him. It’s a fascinating idea and not one who many outside LaBeouf’s specific Venn diagram of life experiences would probably consider.
Noah Jupe is meanwhile wonderful as a younger Otis, holding his own incredibly well against an intensely fiery LaBeouf. LaBeouf as his own father, in a move doubtless wrapped in layers of pained psychology, meanwhile makes James a twitchy, intermittently charming redneck who clearly does care for his son, albeit in a deeply confused and ultimately horrifyingly abusive way.
One can only begin to imagine the existential implications of the actor playing his own father while smacking his younger self, and we can only hope it provided LaBeouf with some sort of meaningful catharsis. But the actor laudably doesn’t make his dad a cartoon villain, and clearly feels compelled, if only for his own sake, to dig deeper and excavate more about the man.
In addition, there are a number of neat supporting cameos, such as Clifton Collins Jr. as Tom, the new boyfriend of Otis’ mother, while Natasha Lyonne is in the mix for mere seconds as the disembodied phone voice of the mother herself. The most striking peripheral player, however, turns out to be Martin Starr, appearing briefly but memorably as a compassionate-yet-stern supervisor at the rehab clinic, while FKA Twigs is a soothing presence of calm compassion as a prostitute who takes Otis under her wing at the motel.
Director Alma Har’el does an economical yet lyrical job on the directing front, aided by some eye-watering lensing from DP Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon, Gloria Bell), while regular Sigur Rós producer Alex Somers delivers a beautifully ambient musical score. This is not a movie that needed to be stylish in order to succeed, but it certainly didn’t hurt either.
As a culmination of his various performance pieces and social experiments over the last few years, Honey Boy proves a unique vessel through which writer-star Shia LaBeouf confronts – and perhaps partially exorcises – his personal demons.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.