If art offers a means to process life experiences and give an audience a glimpse at the world through the eyes of its creator, actor (and now screenwriter) Shia LaBeouf has clearly taken that to heart with the deeply personal "Honey Boy." A tour through the performer's troubled past, the film lets viewers join in what amounts to an extended therapy session. The result is more compelling than it might sound, a moving exploration of art, trauma and the connection between the two.
Having been performing nearly his entire life, LaBeouf grew up in front of the cameras and over the years has proven himself a gifted actor. Living in the public eye is never easy, but eventually his talent on screen threatened to be eclipsed by his increasingly dismaying behavior off of it, culminating in an arrest after a drunken altercation with police in 2017.
That episode resulted in a court-mandated stint in rehab, during which time the actor was assigned by a counselor to write about his childhood, providing the origins of the script for "Honey Boy," a lightly fictionalized filmic account of his experiences. It's an act of cinematic exorcism, allowing LaBeouf to confront the history of addiction that has afflicted his family through several generations.
His stand-in in the film is actor Otis Lort, who we meet as a young man (played by Lucas Hedges) in 2005 while shooting a "Transformers"-esque action extravaganza. In his own words "an egomaniac with an inferiority complex," Otis lands in rehab following a car accident while under the influence. There he's guided by his psychologist (Laura San Giacomo), reckoning with his both memories of childhood, and relationship with his father.
The narrative cuts back and forth to 1995 when Otis (played by an excellent Noah Jupe) is a rising child actor with a gig on a successful television sitcom. During that period, Otis is being accompanied to sets by his father James (played by LaBeouf himself) and living out of a rundown motel. A former Vietnam vet, registered sex offender (due to his actions during a blackout-drunk bender years prior), and former rodeo clown performer, James is deeply invested in his son's career.
"Honey Boy" gets its title from the name Otis is called by his father, a phrase that coming from him is as much a put down as it is a term of endearment. The "bad dad" tropes are familiar, but it all feels genuine, with raw and honest emotion behind it.
We see him drilling Otis on his lines and debating which readings are likely to get the most laughs. He's pushy, and at times his extremes can turn physically and verbally abusive. Insisting he's Otis's "cheerleader," James points out how he's pooled everything into his son's career while claiming the boy's mother has gotten a job in case Otis fails as an actor. He's immensely jealous and prideful, taking the presence of Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.), Otis's Big Brother mentor, as a personal affront and feeling humiliation at the fact that his own son pays his salary.
A natural talent, Jupe gives a soulful performance as a young boy forced to take on roles well beyond his years. Otis may be the family breadwinner, but he still desperately needs his father to be in charge and act like, well, a father.
Their dynamic is a relationship rooted in trauma, and the pain inflicted on Otis by his father became a permanent part of him, both emotionally and artistically. But that pain also provided the roots from which Otis's talent grew — his father is most likely the reason he became an artist in the first place. There's a devastating scene where James refuses to get on the phone with Otis's mother, leaving the boy to act as go-between, and as he relays the invectives each parent spits at one another, he takes on their mannerisms, providing glimpses of the gifted actor he'll grow to become.
Singer-songwriter and dancer FKA Twigs gives a sweet, economical performance as a sex worker who also lives in the dingy motel where Otis and his father reside. Her quiet, but almost motherly presence offers Otis the affection he's been starved of.
With her first fictional feature film, Alma Har'el draws on her background in documentary filmmaking to bring out a naturalism in her actors' performances, even as the narrative takes on more dreamlike and impressionist characteristics. That lyricism is matched by striking cinematography from Natasha Braier, which layers the film in saturated neons, flares, and bright rays of light.
Between this and "The Peanut Butter Falcon," LaBeouf is having a very good year. One might be tempted to dismiss "Honey Boy" as navel-gazing, but there's a vulnerability to what LaBeouf is doing. Giving one of his finest screen performances, he doesn't completely vilify his father, treating him with compassion and clear-eyed understanding.
Working through those complicated feelings on screen, the story becomes one of generational trauma, healing, and forgiveness. The viewer can sense how creating this film would be genuinely cathartic for LaBeouf, and watching, one can't help hoping it offers the actor some semblance of the peace he so obviously craves.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.