Honey Boy is the kind of film that hurts to watch, and that’s entirely the point. Shia LaBeouf’s brutal act of therapy on screen is a tight and emotional exercise that’s really just as much about what it doesn’t include as what it does. Directed by Alma Har’el, the autobiographical indie flick centers on a young actor called Otis who acts as the film’s analog for Shia; it even opens with a Transformers-esque action shot. Otis is played as an adult by the wonderful and frenetic Lucas Hedges who shines as the traumatized star, and as a child by the astounding Noah Jupe. LaBeouf himself does a harrowingly good job as his own father, here known as James.As with any (auto)biographical film, the biggest question that surrounds it is how much really happened. Well, just like in real life Otis is a child star who lives in a motel with his ex-rodeo clown dad whilst shooting a kids’ TV series. This is pretty much exactly the story of LaBeouf’s early days in Hollywood whilst starring in Even Stevens. This authenticity and apparent honesty are at the heart of what makes Honey Boy special. From the outset the story seems dedicated to being uncomfortably real with Otis’ hard-living Hollywood lifestyle, ending with him in rehab before the credits have even rolled. It was this real-life stint that led the actor to create Honey Boy as a rehab-mandated form of catharsis and to that end, it seems incredibly successful. LaBeouf spills his proverbial guts on the page, sharing some of the most terrible and intimate traumas of his life, not just as a writer but as an actor relieving his abuser impact on screen.
We follow Otis through his court-enforced rehab and therapy that focuses on immersion — a technique used to help survivors of PTSD — which throws Otis back into his childhood. Har’el utilizes this smart and slick narrative trick perfectly, enabling us to live through both Otis’ trauma and the very beginning of his recovery. There’s a fairytale-like feel to his childhood memories as Jupe believably plays a little boy who’s old before his time, living in the neon-hued dreamworld of the Los Angeles motel where his father puts them up. Otis spends days on set and nights either near-euphoric with the freedom that his life affords or sadly smoking alone in his room whilst waiting for his unreliable father figure who can’t quite get his head around being a parent. LaBeouf and Jupe are like a particularly horrible car crash, not in that they aren’t good; in fact, they’re brilliant together. But no matter how awful the scenes between them get, you can never look away.
LaBeouf gives a career-best performance as his own narcissistic and bitter father, filling the role with anger and sadness. Though Otis is our in character and the film is titled Honey Boy after the pet name James has for his son, the film is arguably about James. It’s about LaBeouf’s performance of him, his perception of him, his impact on the young boy and his career, and ultimately about LaBeouf coming to terms with the toxicity of the relationship that so clearly shaped him. It’s a minefield of complexity and ironically this exploration is both Honey Boy’s biggest strength and weakness. So much of the film is bursting with nerve-shredding honesty. It deals with the physical and emotional abuse that “James” inflicted on “Otis,” even mentioning the father figure’s real-life felony conviction for attempted rape. But it’s when it comes to what the film leaves out that it becomes hard to decipher the murky message LaBeouf is trying to send.
It’s true that LaBeouf’s father is a convicted felon. It’s true that he tried to rape someone. But what the film leaves out is that he’s also a convicted pedophile, because the woman he attempted to rape was actually a minor. It leaves out the kidnapping charge he faced, too. The fact that the film leaves this out — apart from some implied moments that could be taken as the hints at the possible sexual abuse of Otis at the hands of his father — and ends with a spiritual reconciliation between the two feels messy.
Watch the red band trailer for Honey Boy below:
In LaBeouf’s defense he never tries to make his father an empathetic figure, which is proven in a particularly powerful moment where James shares his past to an AA group only to have the sympathy-inducing recollection immediately undermined by adult Otis in a subsequent scene as he states that his father’s AA stories are often lies. Despite that, it’s hard to ignore the realities of LaBeouf’s father’s crimes, especially in a film that’s betting on its honesty as a huge selling point. It was either incredibly smart or cynical for the actor to set the movie in 2005, before any of the public troubles he pulls from had begun, as it gives him space to pick and choose what goes into the timeline without the ability of the audience to pin it down, leading to the other omission that feels like it takes away from the power of the story.
Honey Boy is a film about abuse and abusive cycles, and although Otis is by no means an entirely sympathetic character when we meet him as an adult, Jupe portrays him with such innocence and sweetness that you can’t help but want to protect him. Throughout the narrative, LaBeouf and Har’el hammer home the fact that many abusers have been abused or traumatized, yet the actor decided not to include his own abusive behavior. The arrest at the beginning of the film is stripped of the racist abuse LaBeouf yelled at the cop who took him in during the 2017 altercation.
Despite the fact that we see the abuse enacted on him so clearly and painfully, it never touches on LaBeouf’s own history of being an abuser in his relationships, which has been widely documented by the press like so much of his life. Ultimately, this is his story to tell, and he and Har’el tell it well. But as the film comes to its strangely saccharine end that leaves you wanting, it seems like maybe there’s a different version of Honey Boy somewhere that more directly shines a light on the impact of this relationship on LaBeouf.