Honey Boy’s first scene displays an amusingly self-aware depiction of screenwriter Shia LaBeouf’s life. Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) a stand-in for LaBeouf, is doing something familiar to anyone who’s watched the Michael Bay Transformers films: shouting “No no no no no!” as an explosion happens in the distance. It’s the awkwardly angry image we’ve come to affiliate with this actor, but Honey Boy pulls back the curtains to reveal the struggles he endured in both childhood and adulthood. Not only does this make for a solid drama, but it also makes me regret all the times I dismissed LaBeouf’s skills personally.
Otis is a pretty successful actor, but substance abuse and a car accident send him to rehab for treatment. The doctors diagnose him with PTSD, a condition that, as we soon learn, stems from literal growing pains. Flashing back to the source of his trauma in 1995, young Otis (A Quiet Place’s Noah Jufe) gets his start in a slew of cheesy TV roles which harken back to LaBoeuf’s Even Steven days. He makes a sizable amount of money for someone his age, but Otis’ home life is a different story. He shares a motel room with his dad James (Laboeuf himself) an ex-Vietnam vet, ex-felon, ex-rodeo clown and abusive son of a bitch. The man drives a motorbike, spends his time growing marijuana behind a freeway, and looks like a schubbly Benjamin Franklin with his balding head, mullet and glasses.
Not much happens in Honey Boy in terms of travel or the pursuit of tangible goals. At just over an hour and a half, the story is rather self-contained, limited to older Otis’ rehab center and the motel lot and acting studio he and his dad share. The real drama comes from Jufe and Laboeuf’s interactions as they navigate a path of toxic parenthood. A lot of this comes down to James being a complicated paradox. He’s been sober a long time but has moments of violence. He tries to engage in conversations with his son, but they ultimately devolve into something James wants Otis to be. More importantly, James feels internally emasculated by their dynamic, angry but accepting that Otis is doing better than him.
There isn’t really a redemption arc for James. LaBeouf’s writing and performance firmly interpret his childhood pain into someone guilty of being a horrible father. But, in a gutsy move, he still tries to humanize the man. One particular monologue during a bikers gathering does much to flesh out James’ upbringing, detailing his own abusive childhood, drug addictions and a drug-addled sexual encounter that caused Otis’ birth but registered him as a sex offender. Yet James still feels determined to raise his son, even if he’s bad at the job. There’s just enough nuance to frame this as a cycle of violent habits that neither father nor son feel capable of breaking. That’s ultimately the purpose of present-day Otis’ therapy sessions: to confront the one thing his father left him with- “pain”- and ask whether he wants to overcome it.
While Hedge is solid as adult Otis, even capturing some of LaBoeuf’s vocal mannerisms, Noah Jufe stands out even more. Despite his acting success, this is just a kid trying to live each day in the absence of a stable family environment. The closest he gets is a friendship with the neighborhood girl (played by FKA Twigs) who lives in the motel opposite theirs and offers him brief moments of escapism and sexual undertones. But he’s ultimately forced to play the bridge between his dad’s outbursts and regrets, as epitomized by a phone call with their estranged mother.
It’s during this scene that the screenplay and Israeli director Alma Har’el encapsulate Otis’ anguish. With his mom’s voice muffled by the phone and James unwilling to pick up the phone, Otis is tasked with literally playing the messenger. He becomes a mouthpiece for both sides of the argument, reciting their dialogue back and forth like it’s another one of his scripts. Physically he is acting but emotionally he’s dealing with a situation no child wants to endure. One can only wonder how much of this was actually something LaBeouf did and how much is how he simply remembers the experience feeling. Either way it’s incredibly raw.
If anything, Honey Boy’s crosscutting chronologies provide a stronger narrative on grief than The Goldfinch, minus a full hour of storytelling. There is a bit of drawback, however, as it’s hard to tell when one act ends and the other begins. This film is drawn more by discussion than movement, focusing on how characters talk out their problems to track their growth. Movement only takes a dominant role during adult Otis’ dream sequences, mainly as a way to interpret his trauma. Because of this, determining the passage of time in either storyline feels rather undisclosed.
But really the crowning achievement of Honey Boy is how much it makes me regret the times I mocked Shia LaBeouf as an actor. Despite knowing him from Holes, most people of the digital age grew up with a Shia whose Transformers performances and personal feuds were the stuff of internet mockery. Quite literally with those “Just do it” memes. And yeah I was amongst those who groaned whenever his name was shown amongst a cast list.
However, this film makes it clear that Shia went through a lot growing up and off set. Honey Boy, both in his stellar performance and pathos-infused writing, gives the man a way to channel that frustration into one of his best performances. Combined with last month’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, this one-two punch resembles at a comeback in the same vein as the Keanussiance. A re-Beouf, if you would.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars
Honey Boy is a solid and emotional drama that makes me, of all things, interested to see what Shia LaBeouf does next. It translates the actor’s dysfunctional childhood and recent tenure in rehab into something worthy of empathy. Choosing to play your father and act out what you saw as his worst qualities on the big screen as a form of catharsis- that would be tough for anyone to pull off. I really hope he wins an award for this performance.