**Spoilers for the movie below!**
Based on the early years of Shia LaBeouf’s acting life, Honey Boy is a semi-autobiographical American drama that was written by LaBeouf as a seemingly cathartic exercise whilst in rehab, with the final product of the project being released in November 2019. The film’s narrative focuses around Otis Lort in two timelines – firstly, as a young man and Hollywood A-list actor (Lucas Hedges), who is in court-ordered rehab following a drunken car crash and altercation with the police. Once at rehab, certain events begin to trigger flashbacks to his earlier life as a child star (Noah Jupe) whilst living with his father James (Shia LaBeouf), a former Rodeo clown who is both deflated and jaded. The present is fluently interwoven with the past to create a movie that is at times acidic, but always searingly personal.
Whilst being semi-autobiographical, director Alma Har’el creates an opening sequence in which the viewer struggles to tear the movie set scenes away from the real life events. Opening on a big blockbuster set which viewers could identify as that of Transformers, this obscurity creates enough distance between the film’s characters and who they represent, allowing the viewer to truly empathise with them. With what on paper seems to be a vain attempt by LaBeouf to excuse his past transgressions, the sheer honesty of Honey Boy creates a poignant film that is anything but. When asked about writing the film, LaBeouf said:
“It is strange to fetishize your pain and make a product out of it and feel guilty about that. It felt very selfish. This whole thing felt very selfish. I never went into this thinking, ‘Oh, I am going to fucking help people.’ That wasn’t my goal. I was falling apart.”
One of the distinctive features of the film is the brilliantly grounded performances given across the board which are both emotive and resonant. Lucas Hedges perfectly captures the volatile body language and mood that people have come to recognise LaBeouf for as a result of his widely filmed public outbursts. Additionally, Noah Jupe cements himself as a truly talented young actor through his inspired and mature portrayal of the complex emotions associated with such sensitive topics. However, the crown jewel of the film’s brilliant repertoire of acting comes in the form of Shia LaBeouf’s depiction of his own father. His performance as the film progresses acts as a general exposé of his father character. The knife edge he walks between slipping back into addiction and the volatile jealousy he holds towards his son’s rising success becomes increasingly obvious as time progresses and the extent to which Otis is being gaslit becomes apparent. However, it is the scenes in which LaBeouf is alone and without the focus of attention on Otis where his performance really shines. These scenes force him to delve into the abyss of his father’s character and attempt to find some light or understanding within the man that hurt him so much.
Honey Boy tackles headfirst the important issues surrounding fatherhood, abuse and how family pressures can be imprinted on someone from an early age. The overarching family situation in which Otis finds himself in as a young actor is conveyed to the audience masterfully when Otis has to act as a middleman on the phone whilst his parents argue through him, for example. He relays the wild abusive screams of his father and the accusations of his mother who reveals James’ past as a sex offender, whilst putting on voices and acting. This conveys acting as a coping mechanism for the trauma he experiences, and yet it is also at times the root of his problems. The multifaceted relationship presented between Otis and James is best shown when James is vehemently encouraging Otis to rehearse his scenes for the TV show he stars in but begins screaming at the loud neighbours in the sleazy motel setting in which they live. This turns into an argument between Otis and James that results in Otis calling off the ‘arrangement’ between them in which Otis pays his father to chaperone him and on a more personal level to just stay in his life, which is what warrants James’ nickname for Otis ‘Honey Boy’. The idea of having to pay your father to simply stay in your life is tragic in itself, but the complexity of emotions and stress surrounding the fact that he is his own fathers’ boss at 12 years old are almost incomprehensible.
These tragic sentiments are emphasised earlier in the film where Otis receives affectionate attention from the ‘Shy Girl’ (FKA Twigs) across the street. They simply hug and spend time together, yet Otis who is so starved of simple affection offers to pay her money for it. The sense of emotional burden that stems from these events are shown to be directly impacting the older Otis whilst in rehab, yet it is the final scene of the film which perfectly portrays his acceptance and almost forgiveness. After leaving rehab he travels to the old motel he lived in with his father, where he imagines seeing his father dressed in his old rodeo clown outfit. They talk, reaching a level of understanding and peace, before the final scene of Otis riding down the highway with his father in full rodeo attire hugs him from behind. As the dreamlike soundtrack kicks in, the camera angle changes and Otis’ father is no longer there. This visualization of carrying a familial burden is gentle yet proves to be a truly poignant and hard-hitting ending that leaves you thinking about the film, and Shia LaBeouf in new light.
Whether you’re watching it for the prevalent and complex themes it tackles, or for an insight into the life of ones of Hollywood’s most talented and controversial stars, Honey Boy will not disappoint. It is a raw, shocking and fundamentally sad film that does not deliver its contents in a whitewashed way but opts for an authentic style that is true to the themes it discusses. Honey boy is a film that will leave you thinking for hours on end and reconsider your own relationships with the people closest to you. It is a hidden gem for sure!
Honey Boy is available via Amazon Prime Video now. Watch the trailer for it below.