Few actors have caused the level of curiosity and confusion than one Shia LaBeouf, yet it’s seen little impact on his on-screen career. LaBeouf’s arrests for public intoxication and his mixed bag of performance art may have hindered his public profile, but they never downgraded the quality of a risky and substantial filmography. Now, the dueling aspects of LaBeouf’s career and public life have collided in a most intriguing fashion. With Honey Boy, LaBeouf makes his screenwriting debut through a rambling, understated autobiographical summation of his troubled youth, pinning much of his rough entryway into young adulthood on his abusive father — a lively role that the actor himself embodies with plenty of unsettling machismo, but it’s one of only a few meta flourishes in an otherwise straightforward addiction drama. Directed by expressionistic documentarian Alma Ha’rel in her narrative debut, Honey Boy benefits from the filmmaker’s keen eye, even as it stuffs real-life trauma into conventional beats.
But however Honey Boy adheres to a more traditional playbook for naturalistic stories of troubled youth, it begs for deeper readings from its very first shot: A Shia of 2005, lightly fictionalized as “Otis” (Lucas Hedges), endures some explosive stunt work on the set of a big Hollywood production that could only be Transformers. Shown in a dense montage engaged in a remarkable blur of production schedules, heavy drinking, and hookups, Otis has barely spoken a word before he’s flipped his car and landed in jail, followed by court-ordered rehab. It’s there where he’s pressured by his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) to consider his past, and then the flashback begins: It’s now 1995, and a pre-teen Otis (Noah Jupe) finds himself at the center of another insubstantial production, this time a kids that could only be Even Stevens. It’s from there that Honey Boy settles into its two time periods, making unsubtle connections between the way LaBeouf’s wreck of a dad pushed his son around while stumbling through a series of poor decisions, and the eventual impact it had on LaBeouf’s own rocky trajectory. Diagnosed early on with PTSD, twentysomething Otis grapples with his memories to make sense of his broken home. While Hedges inhabits the role with secretive glances and the occasional tantrum, the bulk of the movie involves his younger counterpart, as Jupe essentially takes center stage in Honey Boy, and he’s bonafide breakout, imbuing the pint-sized figure with a fiery confidence to resist his father’s cruelty over the course of the concise story.
Colliding with Jupe’s subtle turn is LaBeouf’s transformation into his father “James” (real-life name Jeffery) which finds him with a long, receding hair-do, messy sideburns and a visible (not very convincing) gut. His performance is one of both sensitivity and open rawness, and as the full scope of James’ history becomes clear, we see how tragedies and misdeeds have shaped his life. Making way for the domineering blankness with which LaBeouf clouds his face early on in the film, giving way to the realization that his character is perpetually tamping down his own overwhelming feelings of shame and jealousy. The ensuing narrative that features all this that has a lot of textbook moments, some affecting some clumsy: recurring reminders that the affection-averse James refuses to hold his son’s hand, a (largely flat) subplot involving Otis’ warm companionship with an older but young prostitute (FKA Twigs) in their budget-motel community where he finds only the slightest hint of warmth, all of which unfold in a schematic fashion befitting a first-time screenplay.
LaBeouf’s own self-analysis is largely too obvious to reveal much self-reflection. “I’m a grown man with an inferiority complex!” Hedges’ Otis blurts out early on. Fortunately, while these scenes come and go, the earlier moments provide a compelling foundation for exploring LaBeouf’s legitimate challenges, and push back on the perception of this possibly being a total vanity project. Much of that has to do with the accomplished filmmaker behind the camera: Ha’rel’s visual style came to fruition in the lyrical documentaries Bombay Beach and True Love (the latter which was produced by LaBeouf). Both of those projects melded non-fiction with staged moments, making her pretty well-suited for this high-concept, often surreal cinematic autobiography. At some of its best moments, Honey Boy provides lovely snapshots of small moments from Otis’ youth. Otis drifts from the bright lights of various sets to the drab interiors of a grimy motel room, trapped between two hostile worlds and searching for stability in both. As the movie wanders from its character’s quest for catharsis, it manages to provoke genuine pathos for the internal nature of that battle.
But still with its shortcomings, Honey Boy remains a fascinating cultural object and an essential viewing for anyone obsessed with the actor’s bizarre ups and downs. As a narrative testament to his side of the story, the movie exists on a continuum alongside LaBeouf’s other self-referential work, including #ALLMYMOVIES (where he consumed his entire filmography publicly, in a New York theater, over the course of several days), and his disturbing public exhibition #IAMSORRY (which he invited anyone willing to wait in line the opportunity to sit across the table from LaBeouf as he wore a paper bag over his head). And of course there was the time he walked the red carpet with a mask that read “I am not famous anymore.” And while those gimmicks were destined to obfuscate LaBeouf’s problems and annoy his audiences, Honey Boy offers an olive branch. It’s best appreciated less as a movie than a cinematic confessional, a search for catharsis in the only substantial medium within LaBeouf’s grasp. To that end, even as Honey Boy settles into the tropes of a familiar coming-of-age saga, it’s an admirable variation — an earnest attempt by an elusive movie star to bring his mythology down to Earth. Watching Honey Boy is much like voyaging along with Shia LaBeouf on his quest for catharsis, watching him mine his own life in search of healing, and in the end, through the sensitive performances, it’s a quest worth taking.