When news hit that Shia LaBeouf had written a movie about his childhood in which he would play his own abusive father, it sounded like yet another oh-so-Shia meta-stunt. (Remember when he silently faced off with fans at an L.A. art installation entitled #IAMSORRY? Or when he live-streamed his reaction as he watched his entire filmography in reverse order?)
It therefore comes as a bit of a surprise that Honey Boy is not a self-justifying cri de coeur or a prankish exercise in narcissism, but a sensitive, sincere portrait of a child actor’s dysfunctional upbringing and its devastating fallout. Directed by Israeli-American music video and documentary maker Alma Har’el, the film flits back and forth in time, proceeding in impressionistic glimpses and glances. It also unfolds with the urgency of an exorcism, even as it bumps up against some of the constraints of what might indelicately be termed the “abuse-narrative” subgenre.
Shia gets serious.
As personal a project as Honey Boy may be — and as powerfully felt as it often is — the movie sometimes has the whiff of an artful rehashing of themes and characters familiar from various recent problematic-parent films like We the Animals, The Florida Project and I, Tonya (and, before those, Precious, Affliction, The Great Santini, camp classic Mommie Dearest and so many others). It also arrives in the wake of a documentary, Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, that unpacked similar issues of toxic masculinity and the legacy of violence with a revelatory emotional intelligence and complexity that Honey Boy never achieves.
Comparisons aside, however, this is in many ways an impressive, vividly realized piece of work, marking an assured feature screenwriting bow for LaBeouf and fiction directing debut for Har’el. The latter flaunted a gift for locating — and staging — moments of ethereal beauty in life along the roughest of margins in Bombay Beach, her 2011 doc about strugglers and survivors on the shores of California’s Salton Sea. Here, Har’el brings that lyrical touch to a tale of comparable toughness and desolation.
Honey Boy opens with twentysomething movie star Otis (Lucas Hedges) on set. Any questions as to the autobiographical nature of LaBeouf’s script are quickly answered by the Transformers-like action flick we see Otis shooting, and, moments later, the car crash that lands him in rehab. (LaBeouf was at the wheel during such a drunk driving accident in 2008.)
We follow Otis to an in-patient facility, where a counselor (a fine Laura San Giacomo) suggests he’s suffering from PTSD. It’s at this point that Honey Boy starts diving into the past, finding a sweet-faced 12-year-old Otis (A Quiet Place’s Noah Jupe) living in a seedy motel outside Los Angeles with his ex-rodeo-clown father, James (LaBeouf, slightly thick around the middle and sporting a fried comb-over). Otis is a budding young star, and we see James shepherding him around sets, shouting at the crew in true bullying-stage-parent fashion.
But James saves most of his venom for Otis, subjecting him to a near-constant torrent of mistreatment — taunting him about his penis size, haranguing him as he tries to memorize lines, berating him for a variety of perceived slights and, at one point, beating him.
A recovering alcoholic and veteran who works as a highway trash collector, James is both jealous of his child’s success and tortured by the fact that he depends on it (“How do you think it feels to have my son paying me?” he sputters at one point). He’s also slovenly, boorish and casually racist — a nightmarish vision of white-working-class fury that comes dangerously close to caricature.
Fortunately, LaBeouf is the kind of actor who can turn a type into a flesh-and-blood human. His eccentric seducer was the best thing about 2016’s American Honey, and he invested epic brat John McEnroe with an authentic anguish in last year’s Borg vs. McEnroe. A performer whose main gift has always been an intensity that feels visceral rather than studied, LaBeouf makes James a trainwreck of self-loathing, insecurity and neediness. He also shows us the suffering behind the man’s meanness, as well as a twisted tenderness, enriching his characterization with shades of pity. When James talks to Otis, the threats and terms of endearment (including the titular nickname) come so fast and in such close proximity that it’s hard to tell which is which; you understand why the kid aches for his father’s love even as he loathes and fears him.
Honey Boy darts between its two time periods, tracing the origins of young Otis’ growing rage and anxiety and showing the older Otis angrily working through those feelings in rehab. The intricate alternating structure, more collage-like than schematic, prevents the story from becoming a ploddingly conventional chronology of damage, reckoning and redemption. But it also keeps you from sinking fully into the movie’s grip. The rehab-set sections are inevitably a bit prosaic, and as intense as Hedges is here — he even adopts some surly LaBeoufian cadences — Jupe, his impish spark gradually dimmed by despair, is the movie’s emotional center.
At its best, Honey Boy pulls you into Otis’ experience with the immediacy and specificity of a raw memory. In one scene, the boy plays intermediary between his dad next to him and his mom on the phone, relaying each one’s furious response to the other in what starts to sound like some perverse playacting exercise. In another inspired moment, Otis gazes at James, imagining him speaking the lines of the much kinder, fictional father character from a movie he’s shooting.
Elsewhere, Honey Boy is less sure-footed, flirting with a certain indie preciousness. The film tiptoes toward distracting provocation when the 12-year-old Otis and a saintly prostitute who lives in the same motel (FKA Twigs, saddled with a cliche role) seem to be on the verge of a sexual encounter. And there are obvious touches throughout, including the momentary convergence of the story’s two strands as both the younger and older Otis scream primally into the wild (Garden State, alas, did not put the nail in the coffin of that tired trope).
The cuts in Honey Boy are quick, the camera always on the move. Sometimes you wish Har’el, collaborating with DP Natasha Braier and editors Monica Salazar and Dominic Laperriere, would slow it down, allowing us to take the measure of these broken lives without being whisked off to a new scene or setup. Still, as in her documentary work, there’s a warmth and radiance to Har’el’s style here, a deeply felt sense of place and an eye for poignant details and flashes of grace that alleviate some of the harshness — the way the purplish light of a streetlamp is reflected on the surface of the motel pool, for example, or how Otis brings his dad coffee and grazes his feet before leaving their room one morning.
Would Honey Boy exert the same pull if it wasn’t based on Shia LaBeouf’s life? Probably not; that’s an undeniable part of its fascination. But after a few years of LaBeouf’s public persona almost totally eclipsing his talent, it’s nice to be reminded just how vital that talent is.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Automatik, Delirio Films, Stay Gold Features, Kindred Spirit, Red Crown Productions
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs, Martin Starr, Laura San Giacomo, Clifton Collins Jr., Byron Bowers
Director: Alma Har’el
Screenwriter: Shia LaBeouf
Producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Anita Gou, Christopher Leggett, Alma Har’el
Executive producers: Fred Berger, Rafael Marmor, Daniel Crown, Bill Benenson
Director of photography: Natasha Braier
Production designer: JC Molina
Costume designer: Natalie O’Brien
Editors: Monica Salazar, Dominic Laperriere
Composer: Alex Somers
Casting: Chelsea Ellis Bloch, John Papsidera, Jennifer Venditti