Honey Boy is an astonishing act of cinematic therapy. We've all heard the stories about Shia LaBeouf – the drunken arrests, the erratic behavior, the racist rants, the plagiarism scandal. Few actors have melted down in public as frequently or as alarmingly as he has. Now sober and in possession of coping skills for a PTSD diagnosis given in treatment, LaBeouf has channeled the pain of his life into the screenplay for this semi-autobiographical film. In an interesting twist that might have intrigued Sigmund Freud, the character he plays onscreen is based on his own deeply dysfunctional father.
The main character, meanwhile, is a LeBeouf substitute. Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) is a troubled actor making action blockbusters he doesn't care about and consuming a lot of substances. After an alcohol-related car crash, he's sent to rehab, where a therapist (Laura San Giacomo) encourages him to explore his most painful feelings. He initially rebels, then begins to give her advice a try.
Honey Boy intercuts these scenes with flashbacks to Otis as a 12-year-old. Played here by A Quiet Place's Noah Jupe, he's a child star working on silly slapstick kids' programs. Divorced dad James (LaBeouf), a former rodeo clown and registered sex offender, guides his career. That guidance is questionable, though, as he's never satisfied with what his son does. James is also a bully, ridiculing his son on anything and everything (including the strength of the stream when he urinates) and exhibiting hostility to the Big Brother (Clifton Collins, Jr.) Otis's mom got to be a positive role model in his life.
There have been dozens of movies about bad parents psychologically messing up their children. What sets Honey Boy apart is the specificity of its depiction of abusive parenting. James demands that his son succeed because he sees it as a personal vindication of his parenting skills. That's why the Big Brother is such a threat – someone else might be a better father figure than he is. A powerful scene about midway through finds Otis on the phone with his mother. James wants to fight with her, so he puts Otis in the uncomfortable position of relaying messages. The hitch is that the boy has to act out what he's saying to her and what she's saying to him. Proving his worth as a parent to her, in particular, seems to underlie his methods. Otis is a pawn in that game.
We never doubt that James loves his son. At the same time, its obvious that he imposes too many demands on a child ill-equipped to handle them, then becomes belligerent when he feels anything threatens his dominance. Is he a bad father? Undoubtedly, yet LaBeouf, as both actor and screenwriter, provides glimpses into his humanity. An indication is given that James was emotionally abused, too, and is now passing that dysfunction down to Otis, continuing a cycle that many people in this world know all too well.
Playing a stand-in for his own father must have posed quite a challenge. Nevertheless, LaBeouf disappears into character, embodying every ounce of rage and insecurity inside James. Rather than a conventional villain, we see him as what he is – a profoundly damaged individual who at some level is ashamed of his inability to avoid hurting his child. As young Otis, Noah Jupe shares a number of electrifying moments with his co-star. Because he's so vulnerable in the role, the long-term harm being done registers with uneasy clarity. This young actor will break your heart.
Lucas Hedges is outstanding, as well. In many respects, he's central to Honey Boy getting its major point across. The film is not an “I did bad things because I had a lousy parent” story; it's an “I needed to learn how to overcome my demons” story. LaBeouf, in the end, is hardest on himself. Adult Otis gradually recognizes that the origins of his baggage are borderline irrelevant. He's got to make his own choices, stand or fall by his own actions, and mold himself into the man he wants to be. In other words, he's got to accept that his father no longer controls him, he controls himself.
With sensitive, observant direction from Alma Har'el, Honey Boy is a harrowing personal story that has universal relevance. It might also be redemption for its author.
out of four
Honey Boy is rated R for pervasive language, some sexual material and drug use The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.