It’s hard to make a movie about your life without seeming overly indulgent or seeking empathy at every turn. Honey Boy walks a fine line. Written and starring Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy takes no time to absorb us into his early life, and works as a meditative way of LaBeouf to come to terms with the trauma of his young childhood but also present his version of events that may not be known to the common filmgoer who wondered what happened to the star of Transformers in recent years.
The story centres on Otis (Noah Jupe in younger years, Lucas Hedges as the older LaBeouf personality), a young actor making his way in Hollywood. He is controlled by and managed by his father James, a crazed and failed former clown who uses Otis to make money and achieve the success he never could. That’s most of the story narrative wise. We see Otis as an older actor with great success but still emotionally stunted and taken to rehabilitation to seek the answers to the anger that lies beneath. He begins to explore his relationship with his father and the film becomes introspective, where we come to see Otis seeing his father’s flaws and coming to terms with his own life, insofar that he makes this very movie to explore it. Have you kept up?
What is excellent here is LaBeouf’s performance as his own father. Part performance art, part acting, LaBeouf embodies his father and no doubt comes to see sides of his subject likely softened his memories of him. He’s terrifying, his own ambition stunted and unable to escape this circle of disappointment. It’s a career defining performance that is also ground-breaking. Hedges is reasonable as the older Otis, who is filled with rage and explosive, but also slips back into his acting roots when he needs to impress or show others he’s progressed. Jupe is also superb as the younger Otis and you can feel his anger at all moments on screen. This is a role well above his years and he takes it in his stride.
The filmmaking is claustrophobic and unsettling, as the two timelines coverage and sound changes throughout. The scenes of his father and him are not glistened over like perfect memories, but raw and unflinching. But it’s not all doom and gloom, it has moments of comedy that outweigh the dread of scenes between the two. Director Alma Har’el has respected LaBeouf’s script and turns his life into a poetic story that is relatable to many people.
It’s also a peek into the life of an actor who succeeded so much but is now past his success and using his trauma and his acting ability to create an entertaining, insightful film that is also part of his recovery process. It’s not a documentary, but it is heavily grounded in reality. Yet it doesn’t feel like a therapy session, but a breath of air from an actor who’s running from his past and coming to terms with it.
It’s simplicity can also be it’s let down. FKA Twigs features as a fellow neighbourhood girl who has some impact on Otis, but we don’t know what exactly, and she comes across a more Manic Pixie Dream Girl than one would hope. Plus there’s Natasha Lyonne’s name in the credits who is underutilised in a minor, minor role. To top it all off, there’s also little closure at the end of the film, likely because LaBeouf isn’t completely done with this part of his life. He’s gotten to this stage, so perhaps that’s all that he will give audiences at this point.
LaBeouf should have received more recognition for his role. It’s cathartic and captivating. Good on him for also writing a script with punch and embodying his father, and all his flaws, in this unconventional family drama.
FKA Twigs is underused and her character is pretty pointless. There is much more depth that could have been explored. It’s like going to a therapy session and only talking about one thing. We want more context and more time to see how he repairs himself. But maybe that’s not this film.
Originally published on Back Row, 31 January, 2020.