Not even 40 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 then 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. Honey Boy is the result of this process, LaBeouf’s writing debut, a product of his time in therapy recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, 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. Honey Boy is, truthfully, LaBeouf’s necessary therapy.
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 sometimes not 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’s 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-sparkling light. Adult Otis is a very unlikable guy with very few redeeming qualities shown to the audience. In fact, this portrayal may hurt our investment in that 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 brilliant all around. LaBeouf is always a meticulous actor, but playing his own father is chilling. Jupe gives such a composed and real performance for someone so young, while Hedges is near-perfect as older Otis, nailing down LaBeouf’s unique vocal inflections and delivery.
How do you conclude a story that’s still happening? That’s the dilemma Shia LaBeouf faces with Honey Boy. Inherently, this is a story that doesn’t feel like there can be an actual conclusion, largely in part as the conclusion is the movie itself. As a work of cinema Honey Boy is unique in that way. There’s more of this story to tell, but this is merely a snapshot as Har’el keeps her eye on the prize, largely thanks to the fascinating script by LaBeouf. Playing his own father, LaBeouf says that all he wanted was for no one to be mad at him anymore. Hopefully, he just might get his second chance, too.