No one’s mad at me anymore…you’ll get there too.
Shia LeBeouf knows that his off-screen reputation is blabbered about much more than most of the movies he’s ever been in. He probably put that into consideration when he wrote Honey Boy, an incredibly personal film that could very easily help sway the actor’s narrative in a positive direction. But it would be an unfair, nay, unjust simplification to label LaBeouf’s motivations in this way. This film, as a cathartic and cinematic act of courage, provides a haven for LaBeouf to openly and artistically confront his past. But as a work effortlessly stitched into the social conscience, it observes the links between child stardom, abuse, and addiction.
A semi-autobiographical film, Honey Boy invites its audience to study an adaptation of LaBeouf’s childhood, in which he stars as a version of his father. The troubled child actor at the center of the film is technically named Otis Lort – played as a 12-year-old by A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe and again as a 22-year-old by Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges – but neither director Alma Har’el nor LaBeouf shy away from the obvious connection.
Opening up in 2005 against a backdrop of blaster noises and explosions, we meet Otis on a blockbuster set that looks like it could’ve been ripped straight from the special features of a Michael Bay box set. As the performer soars into the sky and disappears into a cloud of dust and rubble, this premiere shot mirrors the introduction of the 1995 Otis, who’s also attached to a harness but – on the set of a children’s television show – is rather having a pie thrown and crushed into his face.
Those who haven’t been privy to LaBeouf’s antics in the headlines over the last several years are given, through Otis, a quick, no-holds-barred rundown. The chaotic roles the performer partakes in start to fade into his tumultuous lifestyle off-camera; it’s exactly the kind of rock-and-roll way of being we’ve come to associate with early-obtained fame. Soon enough, Otis crash lands into rehab, literally, where he’s told he suffers from PTSD. That diagnosis baffles him. What is his trauma? It’s his upbringing. It’s Shia’s upbringing.
From then on, we’re jolted back and forth between the two ends of the decade in question. The examinations and discoveries come from Jupe’s Otis, and their out-bursting effects are embodied by Hedges’, a boiling, bottomless capsule of rageful energy. The younger boy is stuck in a sleazy motel room with his father James (played by a nearly unrecognizable, thick-bellied LaBeouf), who is paid to be his son’s assistant. For a good portion of Honey Boy, the film dances around James’ exact classification, waltzing between sickly abusive, simply unprepared, and well-intended. In an early conversation, he informs Otis that his mother’s working is a sign that she believes he’ll fail. “She’s filling your head full of fear,” he says. “I pump you full of strength because we’re on a team.”
This wabbly, almost indecisive characterization is one of the many pleasing effects of LaBeouf’s script. All three of these performances are dictated by an unyielding pursuit of honesty; they’re written with apparent consideration, drawn from the heart rather than bitterness. James, at times, is a ghastly man – a former rodeo clown, former sex offender, and former alcoholic. But Otis’ unwillingness to leave him behind encapsulates the importance LaBeouf’s own father still holds within him.
With that said, there are parts of the narrative that, while surely penned from a true account, feel stale. The rehab scenes – all of which are propelled by a gleaming supporting role from Byron Bowers – are particularly redundant. It’s an almost pre-cursed area of examination that, no matter its validity, drags the film into familiarity. Har’el, in her feature debut after a string of documentaries, never loses sight of the objective truth in these situations, but sometimes skips past mining the emotional potential of a scene.
But whatever moments of receding filmmaking there are – and there really aren’t that many – they’re all overshadowed by the bravery that went into Honey Boy. Shia LaBeouf’s has become an increasingly interesting career to spectate, with a redemptive path I felt open up at the South by Southwest premiere of The Peanut Butter Falcon earlier this year. Honey Boy is clearly the most important (and best, nonetheless) project LaBeouf has ever been a part of, and hopefully it provides him with the peace he’s clearly seeking.