We as a viewing public know a lot about Shia LaBeouf—or at least we think we do. He broke out, of course, as a child actor on the Disney Channel series Even Stevens, and after a couple of scene-stealing supporting roles he proved more than capable of being a leading man with Disturbia. He graduated to franchise frontman with Transformers, but the popularity of that blockbuster series also coincided with public incidents involving altercations, arrests, and rehab.
With Honey Boy, a semi-autobiographical drama that plays out almost like a feature-length therapy session, LaBeouf aims to give audiences some semblance of understanding with regards to his public troubles. LaBeouf wrote the screenplay himself, which plays out in two timelines. In one, Lucas Hedges plays a famous actor named Otis who is going through rehab. In another, A Quiet Place actor Noah Jupe plays the young Otis, who has a starring role on an unspecified kid-centric TV series, and yet when the lights turn off, goes home to a rundown motel where he lives with his abusive father James, played by LaBeouf. What results is a harrowing, violent, emotional film in which LaBeouf is clearly (and admirably) baring his soul. But whether the film works first and foremost as a film, without the “Shia LaBeouf” meta context, is harder to discern.
It’s clear from the first frame of Honey Boy that the protagonist Otis is very explicitly a stand-in for LaBeouf, as the film opens with Otis filming a CG-heavy movie riddled with practical explosions. After he crashes his car while driving under the influence, severely injuring his hand (just like LaBeouf did in 2008), Otis is sent to rehab where he’s told he has PTSD. Otis has never been to war, so he’s flummoxed by the diagnosis. That is, until he’s forced to examine his relationship with his father.
The bulk of Honey Boy centers around the young Otis and his father. Otis craves a “good dad” and goes to great lengths to excuse or ignore his father’s negligent or abusive behavior. Indeed, the film digs deep into abusive relationships between fathers and sons, of both the verbal and physical kind. 12-year-old Otis is belittled by his father for everything from potentially messing up his glasses to having a “little dick,” and their sessions in which they run lines for the next day’s scenes play out with the palpable tension of a horror movie—you never know when James is going to snap.
And yet the abusive relationship is peppered with just enough “love” for Otis to hang on to. James, a failed rodeo clown and convicted sex offender, clearly resents not just his son’s success but the fact that he’s clearly his adolescent son’s employee, and so his constant putdowns are transparent—he’s attempting to mask his own shame. But of course a child doesn’t know this, and Otis works tragically to forge a better bond with his father, enduring putdown after putdown and savoring the brief, backhanded compliments that are few and far between.
In bringing the story to the screen, director Alma Har’el pulls from her documentary background to bring a naturalistic quality to the proceedings. The end result is impressive, as it only makes the harrowing nature of the violence onscreen that much more disturbing and, ultimately, doubles down on the sense of intimacy throughout the film.
Jupe is a revelation as the young Otis here, displaying a wisdom and emotional maturity beyond his years. That’s part and parcel with how child actors are forced to grow up too soon, but Jupe’s performance is positively heartbreaking. There’s a subtlety to Otis’ emotions that shines through thanks to Jupe, and he and LaBeouf work incredibly well together as they conjure the film’s central relationship.
LaBeouf, meanwhile, is undoubtedly impressive, physically transforming himself into the character of James but also clearly channeling his own father. There’s a subtlety to his performance too that prevents the character of James from coming off as a cliché or contrived. Abusive fathers, while despicable, are complex beings, and LaBeouf imbues James with an emotional complexity that only makes the film richer. It’s as if LaBeouf is working to understand his own father by acting out disturbing memories from his own life.
Of course, you’re also aware in every scene that you’re watching LaBeouf play his own father here, and it can at times be a positively surreal experience. Nearly all art is personal, but watching Honey Boy can at times feel intrusive—like we’re a witness to an intense and elaborate therapy session. No doubt making Honey Boy was therapeutic for LaBeouf (he began writing the film just out of rehab, a fact that is relayed within Honey Boy itself), and it doesn’t ever come to any easy answers or conclusions. It’s more about reliving the past to understand just how severe the trauma inflicted on “Otis” was, and how he self-preservation mechanisms that sometimes allow abuse survivors to function can also hinder the path towards healing and recovery, and manifest in their own dangerous ways. I was reminded of how the Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap so accurately chronicled the cycle of abuse.
And yet, the film is very intimate in nature, and afterwards I was left wondering whether it works as a standalone piece without the metatextual layer of LaBeouf recounting his personal experience. I’m not so sure it does—it’s an effective and engaging portrayal of abuse, but it’s so specific and laser focused on Otis and James that it sometimes lacks a more objective context. Indeed, the film doesn’t conclude with a revelation or even a sense of closure. It’s clear LaBeouf is still working through his complicated relationship with his father, and Honey Boy is a complicated film.
Those looking for dirt on LaBeouf’s onscreen persona or on-set experiences will be disappointed here—there’s no Michael Bay, and no specific mention of “Otis’s” film work beyond the opening sequence. Curiously, though, adult Otis is seen initially rebuffing therapy precisely because being able to tap into his raw emotional trauma is necessary for his job. It feels like LaBeouf is opening up here, trying to tell audiences that his intense acting methods and offscreen troubles are related to his relationship with his father as a kid—at least in part.
And so we circle back here to the Shia LaBeouf of it all. I’ve never seen a film quite like Honey Boy. It’s not trying to obfuscate the fact that LaBeouf is clearly putting his own life onscreen, but the use of pseudonyms and lack of specifics as it relates to Otis’ career underline this as a work of fiction. Perhaps it more accurately fits somewhere between autobiography and therapeutic writing exercise, and it’s an undeniably fascinating and harrowing chronicle of abuse. But it can also get lost in the weeds a bit, kind of running in circles until it crescendos into a no doubt truthful but disheartening finale.
Maybe it’s even a little unfair to judge Honey Boy as a film. Maybe it’s more like witnessing a piece of therapy. Regardless, LaBeouf’s work and willingness to bare his soul is admirable, and Honey Boy is ultimately a film of a wholly unique nature.