Honey Boy, 2019.
Directed by Alma Har’el.
Starring Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Shia LaBeouf, FKA Twigs, Maika Monroe and Natasha Lyonne.
A former child star in rehab looks back on his youthful fame, as well as his abusive, alcoholic father.
There is a lot of talk this year about auto-fiction, in which filmmakers give elements of their own lives a fictitious twist in order to reckon with their past on the big screen. Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama Marriage Story is a prime example, along with the widely acclaimed Joanna Hogg movie The Souvenir. The latest addition to the canon is Honey Boy, which sees Shia LaBeouf penning a script inspired by his own life as a child star dealing with an aggressive, alcoholic father, whom LaBeouf himself plays. It’s nothing short of a cinematic exorcism for one of Hollywood’s most unusual figures.
The surrogate for LaBeouf is Otis, portrayed as a child by A Quiet Place star Noah Jupe and as a young adult by the always reliable Lucas Hedges. Otis is working regularly as a child actor while living with his father, James, in a terrible motel complex. His mum lives elsewhere – as James puts it, she has a job “in case you fail”. Otis is a star dealing with his position in the world, and the awkward dynamic of effectively being his dad’s boss, while his parents undermine each other at every possible opportunity.
LaBeouf’s performance in the movie is nothing short of a whirlwind. He disappears beneath the thinning hair and dreadful clothes of James, vomiting bravado and racist jokes while blustering around the motel complex with cocksure arrogance that barely masks the insecurity beneath the surface. He’s a man constantly on the cusp of a breakdown, either into tearful sadness or explosive violence, and LaBeouf gives it everything. It’s not common to witness a performance which seems like a form of therapy for its actor, but that’s certainly true of LaBeouf here.
Although LaBeouf penned the script, the person behind the camera is narrative feature debutant Alma Har’el. She brings an intimacy to the family dynamic, which enhances the emotional potency present in the script, as well as creating a sense of claustrophobia. Otis is a young man who has been trapped by his circumstances. Somehow, he has become the breadwinner for his household, and that creates an awkward situation, which the film is happy to tease at and play with.
Jupe is terrific at the core of this dynamic, navigating the complex emotions as well as showcasing real comedy chops during the absurd pantomime of a phone call in which he has to serve as a conduit between his parents, complete with accents. One of the strongest elements of Honey Boy is in the relationship between Otis and a slightly older girl who lives in the complex, played by musician FKA Twigs in her film debut. There’s a quasi-sexual side to their relationship, but it’s mostly one of platonic intimacy – streets ahead of the frat boy depiction of teen sexuality in Jonah Hill’s vastly inferior Mid90s.
Honey Boy is a film about loss of innocence, certainly, but it never over-plays that particular hand. There’s an evident love between Otis and James, with numerous scenes in which they unconsciously mirror each other and a light-footed, meta final scene in which the older Otis effectively pitches the film the audience is watching to his dad. This is a movie in which LaBeouf says what he needs to say in order to allow himself to move away from one phase of his life and into another.
And at times, this is where the movie stumbles. It’s a loosely woven narrative machine and, as a result, it’s prone to meander or to pause for slightly too long. In many ways, this is a more important project for its writer-star than it is for those watching – but that’s okay. Honey Boy is a raw, difficult film that is easier to appreciate than it is to love. But when a performer with the ability of LaBeouf is laying themselves bear on the big screen, it would be wrong not to applaud the gargantuan effort that requires.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.