Honey Boy, 2019.
Directed by Alma Har’el.
Starring Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Byron Bowers, Laura San Giacomo, FKA Twigs, Natasha Lyonne, Maika Monroe, Clifton Collins Jr., and Martin Starr.
A young actor’s stormy childhood and early adult years as he struggles to reconcile with his father and deal with his mental health.
Not even five minutes into Honey Boy, 22-year-old Otis (who is actually a version of Shia LaBeouf played by Lucas Hedges) finds himself on the opposite end of rehab therapy, admitting that he is an egomaniac. That’s crucial considering Honey Boy is also written by Shia LaBeouf, and if there is one thing I had trepidation about going in (even if directing duties were entrusted to competent documentary filmmaker Alma Har’el making her feature-length debut), it’s someone that egotistical and self-centered telling an exaggerated family drama about his own traumatic upbringing. It’s the kind of project that could either be freeingly cathartic or attention-seeking, fortunately coming across as the former due to unabashed raw honesty.
To be fair, maybe I’m partially biased and was always going to like this movie. Why? Simply put, Shia receives a lot of unnecessary flak for his many eccentric public displays (all one has to do is open Google and type in his name to read a number of strange stories containing oddball behavior). He’s also proven that one can thrive outside the studio system after being mostly blacklisted, putting in some of the best work of his career lately (Nymphomaniac and American Honey, to name a few standout performances). Honey Boy is not only here to elicit empathy for the whacked-out person Shia LaBeouf became, but serve as his own meta medicine. Essentially, Shia LaBeouf ditches his handsome appearance for a receding hairline, long hair, thick rims, and disheveled physical features, all to step into the shoes of a fictionalized but very real in personality interpretation of his own father.
Honey Boy also contains narcissistic behavior, manipulation, substance abuse, child abuse, and a dynamic between a 12-year-old “Otis” (A Quiet Place‘s Noah Jupe, delivering a devastating turn that skyrockets him to one of the best child actors working today) and a neighboring silent prostitute that I’m not even sure was fully platonic (yes, that sounds gross to say, but there is something moving about watching two damaged human beings connect and make life more tolerable for the other). Much of this material boils down to James (Otis’s father as played by Shia LaBeouf with never-ending insecurity, hostility, physical and verbal abuse, and reckless behavior endangering his own son, somehow all with a slight degree of viewer empathy). Most notably, some of the behavior exhibited resembles articles written about the real Shia LaBeouf’s public stunts, who comes from generational abuse. Otis’s father is a nasty person and parts of the film are difficult to watch, but there’s also a sensation that he’s lashing out because internally he does acknowledge he’s a terrible father; all he knows how to do is double down and become more self-destructive and toxic.
More complicated is that underneath all of the pain he brings to Otis (there’s a heartbreaking line of dialogue where he states that pain is the only good thing his father ever gave him), there is warped fatherly affection. James is a registered sex offender (the details are left somewhat ambiguous, as perhaps maybe the real Shia LaBeouf does not even know them) and rightfully can’t get hired anywhere, leaving Otis to be the breadwinner as a rising child actor regularly featured in children’s television. Together, they live in a nearby rundown motel, with intentionally vague details as to what kind of role Otis’ mother plays in his life. Only heard over the telephone in what basically amounts to a voiceover role from Natasha Lyonne, she has a job and seems like a far more worthy and reliable guardian, but apparently doesn’t have custody. It’s also possible that Otis only stays with his father during filming. Elsewhere in the mix is mom’s new boyfriend (Clifton Collins Jr.) that Otis takes a liking to as a potential real father figure. A great deal of Honey Boy is, again, intentionally vague with rapid-fire mumbling dialogue, mimicking the tornado that is this young boy’s life. Going further, it’s a tornado unwilling to put him down even well into adulthood.
If Honey Boy sounds messy that’s because it is, and for good reason. You’re not going to come away with full in-depth knowledge of every aspect of Shia LaBeouf’s upbringing, and you probably occasionally won’t be able to tell fact from fiction. You also don’t need to give a damn about Shia to let this dysfunctional hell powerfully make an impact and linger in the mind. If Hollywood is often perceived as bullshitters spreading bullshit stories, Honey Boy is about as painfully honest as a biopic can get.
It has its shortcomings; the ambiguity is appreciated, but sometimes the artistic direction doesn’t properly juxtapose with the intense filmmaking emanating from extended one-on-one interactions between Otis and his father, and while the scenes with an older but still troubled Otis effectively hammer home how this unhealthy upbringing set him down in irresponsible path are told with memorable imagery and strong acting, the film is always magnetic whenever Noah Jupe and Shia LaBeouf are tearing up the screen with magnificent acting. They make for an explosive duo, but you don’t get that level of amazing performances without Shia LaBeouf bearing his soul for the world to observe. For him it’s medicine, to us it’s a shell shocking portrait of harrowing adolescence grappling with empathy for the abusers and the abused that imitate in suffering.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com