By Andrew Rodden
Alma Har’el’s 2019 directorial fiction film debut, “Honey Boy,” is a difficult tale about trauma and the various forms it can take. Written by Shia LaBeouf during his stint at a rehab center, this mostly autobiographical movie focuses on LaBeouf’s personal relationship with his father —who, by the way, is played by LaBeouf himself. It is a film about the emotional and physical abuse his father exacted upon LaBeouf as a child, as well as the relationship’s impact on him as an adult. Yes, his father was a cruel misogynist, but Har’el and LaBeouf present the father character as an individual who loves his son. This specific love does not manifest in a healthy way, but it is there.
The movie drifts between the 1995 and 2005 versions of Otis’s, the protagonists, life. The 2005 scenes of the film revolve around a driving while intoxicated incident and subsequent time at a rehabilitation center (adult Otis played by Lucas Hedges), and the 1995 scenes depict LaBeouf’s specific relationship with his father (young Otis played by Noah Jupe). The film opens with 2005 Otis living the life of a Hollywood superstar, complete with fast driving and alcohol abuse. He wrecks his car, and the court mandates he spend time at rehab, where he is flooded with memories of his relationship with his dad in 1995.
Around the midpoint of the film, 1995 Otis is put in the middle of a conflict between his mother and his father, acting as a proxy for his parents’ anger and conflict. He phones his mother, who tells him to repeat words of criticism for his dad, who, through Otis, retorts with insults of his own. This moment is a brilliant representation of Otis’s relationship with his parents, and it is one of many examples of why this movie is so powerful.
LaBeouf could have turned this movie into a full autobiography of his life, diving into extensive details about his teen years, but I’m glad Har’el and LaBeouf showed restraint. LaBeouf’s life has already been heavily documented ever since his “Even Stevens” (2000-03) years, and by excluding a more extensive window of LaBeouf’s life, it interrogates typical expectations of sensationalist celebrity media by focusing on a singular influence on this actor’s psyche. This is the LaBeouf story, but it is as much about his father as it is about him. “Honey Boy” reminds audiences that regardless of how fantastical a character appears on screen, the actor in front of the camera is just as human as you or me.
The actors gave excellent performances, and — props to Har’el for her stand-out direction — everyone involved developed “Honey Boy” into an intensely affecting film. Ultimately, this is LaBeouf’s personal story, but it is presented in a way that is effectively accessible and emotionally powerful. Only the tired “indie film” look of the movie — fuzzy lighting, a camera that won’t stay still — leaves a lot to be desired. I wish Har’el pushed the visual style of the movie a lot further.
“Honey Boy” plays similarly to some of the therapy sessions depicted in the film, breaking down LaBeouf’s childhood relationship with his father. Aside from some questionable stylistic choices, it is an incredibly moving and engaging story of trauma and love. The film fills a LaBeouf-sized hole, and with the recent resurgence of LaBeouf content, like “Peanut Butter Falcon,” an earlier 2019 release, the film world is a better place because of it.