Director: Alma Har’el
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, Byron Bowers, FKA Twigs
Running time: 93 minutes
“I’m going to be making a movie about you” a young man (played by Lucas Hedges) quietly utters to his on-screen father in Israeli-American director Alma Har’el’s latest film. Beside the glistening, tranquil waters of the swimming pool at the hotel complex where he grew up, the face of Hedges’ character is awash with the anguish of the many painful years he has so long repressed.
Honey Boy is that movie. But to label this a ‘movie’ feels like far too simple an assessment — this is a project of immense personal significance for performance artist, star (and, here, writer) Shia LaBeouf. His screenplay is, in a most literal sense, a form of therapy: after a series of drunk, disorderly and disastrous off-screen escapades, LaBeouf was handed a court-ordered stint in rehab in 2017 and, during that time, wrote what would form the basis of the script for Honey Boy. It tells the story of Otis, a Shia stand-in who, as both a child star (played by Noah Jupe) and an adult (Hedges) struggling with PTSD and a fierce temper, is forced to confront the pain of a life marred by a turbulent relationship with his foul-mouthed, tough-loving father (played by LaBeouf himself).
The film interweaves the two timelines, imbued with a handful of dream-like sequences that give Har’el and LaBeouf’s story a sensibility that closer resembles fractured memory than it does a run of the mill biopic. Despite focus on Otis’ formative years as a rising talent, Honey Boy affords us no such time to bask in the glamour of fame, fortune and film sets; but, instead — in a move that invokes the impoverished youth residing in the shadow of Disneyland of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project — spends its time framing an existence defined by entrapment: be it the cramped one-bed hotel room shared by a young Otis and his father, the confinements of a rehab clinic as an adult, or trapped within his own inescapable agony.
Painting a painful (and pertinent) portrait of toxic masculinity playing a version of his own father, LaBeouf scintillates. Any risk of the actor appearing as a quirky casting gimmick is quickly quashed as he delivers a performance of measured intensity that is simultaneously layered and restrained, complete with the idiosyncrasies — nasal voice; peculiar turns of phrase — that only LaBeouf could have the knowledge to bring.
It’s a portrayal that carries much more than a one-note version of villainy. On the contrary, LaBeouf constructs his father as a character of many conflictions. At times, he is capable of love. At others, out of both envy and a burning sense of his own failures, he has few reservations about hitting his son in the face in an outburst of rage. At regular intervals, he threatens to walk out and abandon Otis forever, but something deep down holds him back time and again — a loyalty bubbling up from beneath the hard, cold exterior, carrying the unspoken truth that he might just need his son more than his son needs him. As a man both intimidating and pitiful, LaBeouf’s juxtaposing performance is also a saddening reflection of what we have come to associate with the man himself. And yet, he is impressive enough here to remind us of the talents possessed by one of the finest actors of his generation.
Hedges’ inclusion, a young actor currently embodying everything LaBeouf once was, is a nifty casting choice. However, the film’s true star turn comes from the fresh-faced Jupe. Outshining even LaBeouf, the British actor carries a film of such emotional weight and sensitive subject matter with measured maturity. As the young Otis, a boy caught somewhere between a confident screen star and an unassuming child still figuring out the world around him, he is utterly convincing as a fiery, yet impressionable victim at the centre of a dysfunctional family dynamic.
But, if the compelling performances are occasionally hampered by a script with a tendency to momentarily spill over into familiar, talking-in-metaphor territory, this is a film wholly absent of any trace of glossy egotism. Rather, in writing his own life story, Honey Boy is LaBeouf facing his issues head on: exorcising his demons while imparting the important wisdoms of life he was cruelly denied as a child. While closure might not be afforded, there is an undeniably affecting catharsis at work here. Catharsis, and just maybe, the foundations of forgiveness.