At 33-years-old, Shia LaBeouf’s career has already spanned over two decades with a resume that includes nearly every genre and narrative you can think of. From a young star on Disney Channel’s biggest show, Even Stevens, to a blossoming Hollywood superstar and household name thanks to mega-blockbusters like Transformers and Indiana Jones, LaBeouf had seen more of the industry before he was thirty than most veterans ever would. Then came run-ins with the law, a virtual Hollywood blacklist, and other questionable decisions we don’t need to get into here.
But lately the actor has been striving to earn back the public’s love and trust they once had for him. This year’s Peanut Butter Falcon proved there was still an interest in seeing him onscreen, renewing hope for those of us who’ve rooted for him all along, this writer especially. We simply wanted everyone to see in him what we always have.
How do you craft an autobiographical film without having an ego? By not writing it with the mindset that people will actually see it. LaBeouf’s writing debut, Honey Boy, is a product of his time in therapy recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, and the culmination of his first step in getting his way back on track in Hollywood. He tries to right many wrongs while cathartically sharing a piece of his heart with anyone who cares enough to listen.
But Honey Boy isn’t a biopic in the strictest sense. It doesn’t retell LaBeouf’s entire life story. Instead, the film details a part of his life that had the biggest impact on his career and eventual downward spiral – and ultimate resurrection. If you’re a fellow Shia fan, like myself, this film is filled with a plethora of Easter Eggs, especially from his time on Even Stevens, which launched his career. These may be the reasons why fans are attracted to the project, but they aren’t the only reason to keep watching. It’s more than just a nostalgia kick.
Playing out as a semi-autobiographical depiction of his life, the film follows Otis, a fictional version of LaBeouf, as both an innocent 12-year-old actor (Noah Jupe) living with his abusive father, James (LaBeouf), and later as a 22-year-old major Hollywood star (Lucas Hedges) whose life and career are at risk due to an extreme alcohol problem. Adult Otis is admitted to a court-ordered rehab facility following a drunken altercation with the police. In rehab, he’s forced to journal about his past and come to terms with his relationship with his dad. It turns out Otis has post-traumatic stress disorder and now must face the reality that he’s turned into a version of his father.
The younger Otis lives with his dad, a former rodeo clown and paroled felon, who accompanies him everyday on the set of the unnamed television show he stars in. Despite Otis’ success, he and James try to maintain a humble life in a trailer park in a seedy part of LA. James loves his son but has a funny way of showing it, and often times he doesn’t at all. One minute he’s helping him memorize his lines, the next he’s belittling him and planting seeds of insecurity. This is obviously to mask his own insecurities. His love for his son is in constant conflict with his jealousy of him. Otis is so successful at such a young age, while James is a has-been circus performer. He wishes he could be a better father/person, but just can’t get out from under his past. Sound familiar?
We all try to do better than our own parents, to be better people. If our parents have vices, then we try to make sure ours aren’t quite as bad. In Otis’ case, he’s more like his dad than he’d like to admit, but at least he’s not abusive towards others. Not directly, anyway.
There are many layers to peel back in this movie, but Honey Boy is as much about Otis as it is James. The script was therapy for LaBeouf, but also a love letter to his father in real life. The film does well not to vilify his dad, but I suppose it also wouldn’t benefit from doing so. This story was a personal one for LaBeouf, after all. If Otis is turning into his father, then what would we gain by coming to detest either of them? We must come to understand Otis, and in turn, better understand James.
If anything, Shia depicts his recent self in a not-so-good light. Adult Otis is a very unlikable guy with very few redeeming qualities shown to the audience. In fact, this portrayal is the only thing that may hurt our investment in this version of the character. But then we see where he comes from and it makes sense.
Honey Boy is often as poetic as it is entertaining. Otis’ delicate conflict jump off the screen. At one point he admits the only valuable thing his father ever gave him was pain. Valuable because it’s helped him become a great actor as he channels this pain to better portray and connect with his characters. Conversely, Otis is afraid that once this pain is gone, his talent will go with it. And most importantly, so will his father.
Alma Har’el, in her non-documentary directorial debut, shows why she should be a name to remember in this industry. She brings a dreamlike magic to the screen that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen with a subject matter this heavy, as a non-linear narrative depicts old and young Otis simultaneously to punctuate the character’s trajectory and the loss of innocence.
The acting is brilliant all the way around. Shia as his own father is chilling. LaBeouf is always a meticulous actor, but in this role, he has the biggest reason to be. Jupe gives such a composed and real performance for someone so young, while Hedges is near-perfect as older Otis, nailing down Shia’s unique vocal inflections and delivery.
How do you conclude a story that’s still happening? That’s the dilemma Shia faces with his script. Inherently, this is a story that doesn’t feel like there can be an actual conclusion, largely in part because the conclusion is the movie itself. We come to realize this about 2/3 of the way through. However, he gets there in his own way and we’re met with a relative one within the film.
In movies, we expect everything to be wrapped up in a nice bow. But healing often isn’t storybook. Actually, most of the time it’s not. Honey Boy is very real in that sense. Adult Otis has no epiphanous moment during his therapy, per se, but his character arc resolves with a new beginning.
Honey Boy is somewhat unique in that way. There’s more of a story to tell, but this is merely a snapshot. I don’t mind that it barely scratches the surface of its characters’ dilemma since many “similar” films fail to capture something so simple due to their inability to remain focused. Har’el keeps her eye on the prize, largely due to the fascinating script by LaBeouf. His scenario is specific because of who he is, but it’s relatable at the same time. However, the conceit behind the project may be a turn off for many viewers not privy to the backstory.
The script is the result LaBeouf’s time in rehab and his therapeutic way of trying to heal from the PTSD following his dad’s abuse when he was a child. Yet LaBeouf strays away from a woe-is-me mentality and opts for a less vain approach. Perhaps if written by a third party, we would have sensed some sort of aggrandizement or importance. Delusions of grandeur, maybe. But LaBeouf keeps his story grounded and frank…and honest.
You may think: how can you have an autobiographical project without at least some iota of vanity? But the truth behind the story binds the project and allows for the justification of any self-laud that gets in the way.
Honey Boy is meta in a very unusual way, not only with its casting. In the movie, one of the many themes is how Otis is turning into his father. And as his father, LaBeouf says that all he wanted was for no one to be mad at him anymore. Hopefully, Shia just might get his second chance, too.
Originally published on November 29, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/honey-boy-2019/