Director – Alma Har’el
Cast – Shia LaBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs
Wood rots, stones crumble, people die. The only thing that’s going to live on, says James Lort in Honey Boy, is stories, fables, and dreams. James is an addict and a registered sex offender. He is also the father of 12-year-old Otis, an actor on a successful TV show. James knows that he will likely be forgotten after he dies, but perhaps through the stories of his famous son, he has a shot at immortality.
Written as a therapy exercise by actor Shia LaBeouf, as a part of his rehabilitation program, Honey Boy is an autobiographical tale that has the queasy qualities of a Catholic confession. There is a palpable discomfort in watching the story unfold, particularly the abusive relationship between Otis and his father, played in the best performance of his career by LaBeouf himself. Honey Boy is a cinematic act of forgiveness. It is not a biopic, but as LaBeouf describes it, a meta act of exorcism.
Watch the Honey Boy trailer here
After the film’s premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, LaBeouf said that he hadn’t spoken to his father in around seven years before starting work on the film. “We are talking now,” he added. In his speech, the actor said that he wrote his story in ‘script form’ because it is the only way that he is able to read.
When you watch Honey Boy, this throwaway statement takes on a greater significance. At no point in the film does young Otis go to school. He lives with his dad in an objectively seedy motel, surrounded by drugs and decrepitude. It is James who hands Otis his first cigarette, as a bribe; and subsequently gives him his first joint, exuding the pride of an Indian mother serving her son his favourite dish. James, you see, has grown the marijuana himself; the emotion is not that far off.
The film jumps back and forth between two timelines; in 1995, when James and Otis were trapped together in that shady motel, and in 2005, when Otis, now a famous star, has been sent to rehab after his latest alcohol-related mishap.
We see Otis, in his 20s, performing an action scene with little interest. He stands there, rigged to cables, gazing blankly into the distance as an explosion sends him flying into the air. Later that night, he crashes his car after a night of debauchery with his girlfriend. As he crawls out of the wreckage, we see his hand, mangled to a pulp. Some of you might be aware that while filming the second Transformers film, LaBeouf and his co-star Isabel Lucas were involved in a similar incident. The film had to be rewritten to include LaBeouf’s injury, which was masked in the movie with a bandage.
Lucas Hedges as the adult Otis, in Honey Boy.
But as honest as these early scenes feel, admitting to his misbehaviour is hardly as deep as LaBeouf is willing to go in Honey Boy. Played by Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges as an adult, we see Otis in the rehab facility, learning to let go of his past, and escape the cycle of abuse that he is trapped in. Crucially, LaBeouf doesn’t let Otis off the hook or make excuses for his (own) behaviour. Otis is just as toxic as his dad. “I am an egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” he yells at his therapist.
Which is why the flashback scenes are so vital. We see the 12-year-old Otis, played by A Quiet Place and Ford vs Ferrari’s Noah Jupe, literally lose his innocence. His scenes with his father, usually set within the confines of a cramped motel room, are simmering with intensity. James is a ticking time bomb, easily triggered and cripplingly insecure. “How do you think it feels to have my son paying me?” he asks Otis in the film’s most affecting scene. “You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t pay you,” Otis says through tears.
James manipulates Otis against his mother, rejects the presence of any other man in his life, and peppers his abuse with the words ‘honey boy’ — that was LaBeouf’s nickname as a child.
Shia LaBeouf as James Lort, in Honey Boy.
With such talent on display, it is shocking to note that Honey Boy is the narrative debut of Israeli filmmaker Alma Har’el. It was she who suggested LaBeouf play his dad, something that the actor might never have considered. Har’el makes a fine team with cinematographer Natasha Breier, who gives the film the hazy warmth of a forgotten dream. It has taken two women to find the tenderness in a movie about toxic masculinity.
It takes courage to make a film as honest as this, without shrouding it in fantasy or sugarcoating it with a happy ending. We know how things ended up for Shia LaBeouf, who was once earmarked for Hollywood greatness, but seemingly surrendered his success overnight. We did not, however, know of his demons. Honey Boy is a bleak film, but it is a brave film. The catharsis that it offers is rare. Along with The Peanut Butter Falcon, it will be seen as a moment of rebirth for one of this generation’s greatest actors.