This time last year, the mention of Shia LaBeouf’s name would have induced jeers, scoffs, and meat-headed impressions of the controversial former child-star.
Once the driving force behind the billion-dollar Transformers film series, LaBeouf’s career had suffered at the hands of personal struggles that had festered since he was a child. The manifestations of this grief, based on his recent string of unruly behaviour, had provided the beloved action-star with a reputation for being aggressive, violent, and difficult to work with.
While infamy hangs over LaBeouf like a dark cloud, there is no denying the Disturbia actor is a spirited artist longing for solace. Regardless of LaBeouf’s actions, his willingness to process his demons is nothing short of admirable.
With Honey Boy, LaBeouf offers a deeply personal account of his turbulent relationship with his father, the lasting impact of this relationship throwing LaBeouf into a life of drug and alcohol abuse – his eventual assignment in rehab producing the film’s screenplay. It is a depiction that is as cathartic as it is confronting, with director Alma Har’el capturing with an empathetic, albeit hard-hitting, touch.
Contrasting the experiences of Otis ‘Honey Boy’ Lort (the change in the name being perhaps LaBeouf’s only delineation from reality) from a budding child-actor to an early-twenties Hollywood star assigned into rehab, Har’el empowers Honey Boy’s framing to connect the trauma of childhood with the grief of adulthood. The performances for which are drawn out impeccably by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges, with both young leads churning out confronting portrayals of lost youth.
LaBeouf’s decision to portray his abusive father, James Lort, is a gutsy choice that requires him to relive devastating childhood trauma. It is a feat that too easily could this verged into exploitative, poverty-porn territory had Honey Boy been developed by LaBeouf as a means of collecting audience sympathy. This is not the case. LaBeouf’s risky decision pays off, with his casting imbuing the film with a sense of profound authenticity, creating a face for the hardships that LaBeouf lived through.
LaBeouf’s depiction of James, a Southern-fried former rodeo-clown with a history of transgressions, denotes the harmful manner abuse rears its ugly head an as ongoing stream of mistreatment. James is fiery, controlling, and not without his cognisance to how the world sees him as lesser. James believes his brand of ‘tough love’, the likes of which he administers with a passive rage, will prevent his son from being disposed of to the fringes of society – a treatment he is all too familiar with.
Though reliant on his son as the main source of income (illegal side hustles aside), James is quick to declare himself as the alpha in their relationship, with Otis often reduced for his perceived lack of masculinity – even his urination sounding not manly enough. This form of resentment extends to his relationship with his ex-wife/Otis’ mother, whom he often subjects his son to lacerating gripes over their complicated separation.
Following his similarly touching turn in 2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, LaBeouf has found his stride with modest budget tales of self-actualisation that exist as a form of therapy for the infamous performance artist. LaBeouf’s embodiment of this character is nothing short of impressive, with his ability to evoke great pain, the likes of which only a family could inflict, demanding the viewer to empathise with these troubled characters.
The materialisation of this artistry extends to Har’el’s direction, with the decorated director integrating moments of surrealism to provide Honey Boy with an appropriate amount of an evocative sting. This is most prominent when twelve-year-old Lort calls into question his father’s neglect; often delivering the words he wishes to say to his father in a fanciful state. Otis is a boy longing for the presence of a reliable and supportive father. Har’el chooses not to inundate the film with these moments, and carefully selects when to deliver these emotive gut-punches to optimal effect.
Har’el does not limit this marginalisation and cycle of abuse to just the experiences of the Lorts. The manner whereby James and Otis find themselves in this cycle of disenfranchisement is one Har’el acknowledges as being a prevalent issue for black Americans. She achieves this in such an emotional yet subdued fashion that allows the storytelling to coherently present broader societal issues regarding class.
LaBeouf’s high-profile Hollywood downfall has been the fodder of Hollywood gossip-columns for the better part of the last decade. Often depicted as being petulant, dramatic, and pretentious, LaBeouf’s pain and rehabilitation through art have been the joke of tabloids who possess greater interest condemning celebrities at their lowest of lows. As fascinated by downfalls as Hollywood is with underdog stories of redemption, a troubling equilibrium of sorts, LaBeouf and Har’el prove the perfect pairing in this confronting introspective look at familial neglect.
Director: Alma Har’el
Cast: Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, Shia LaBeouf
Writer: Shia LaBeouf