Honey Boy is Shia LaBeouf’s self-portrait of processing the lifelong resentment and rage of his childhood. It’s a tender film reflecting on growing up with a parent who never treated you how a parent is supposed to. Written during his time in rehab as a way of acknowledging and managing his trauma, it’s a direct and unflinching script. Empathetically directed by Alma Har’el, this is easily one of the most impressive narrative feature debuts in recent years.
Shia himself takes on the confronting role of James, a man based on his father. It’s casting some might consider too close to home, but that’s exactly why it works so well. The father is an absolute loon, he’s a literal clown. Shia doesn’t shy away from his kookiness, but where there’s a risk of crossing a line of becoming ridiculous, Shia manages to balance the silliness with an unsettling realism that any child of an unkind parent will recognise.
Otis (Shia’s surrogate character) is portrayed in his younger child star years by Noah Jupe. This is a sensitive performance that will make your heart ache. Lucas Hedges plays the addiction addled adult self, delivering a performance that establishes him to be one of the most competent 20-something year old actors currently working. Unlike his recent appearances in the hollow Boy Erased (opposite Nicole Kidman in one of her worst wigs to date), and the woefully misguided Ben Is Back (alongside Julia Roberts at her pantomime best), Lucas finally finds himself in a film that actually has the heart to match his performance.
Another crucial character is the motel complex Otis and James call home, it couldn’t be a more ideal place for them to live. It’s actually a location that’s been used in almost everything and anything – I’m not exaggerating, look it up. From Vanderpump Rules, to The OC, and even The Veronicas In My Blood-era promo shots. All sorts. But cinematographer Natasha Braier captures it in a way where you can’t imagine it to exist anywhere else but in the world of Honey Boy. Actually, thinking back to her work with The Neon Demon, Natasha really captures a motel complex like no one else.
After it’s suggested the cynical as cynical can be adult Otis should venture out into the woods and scream by his rehab counsellor, we witness a scene that showcases the power of Honey Boy’s storytelling. Lucas Hedges’ gut-wrenching yell is one of absolute catharsis and tells us more than any overwrought dialogue and crying scene ever could.
James might be easy to dismiss as a character that’s nothing more than an awful and abusive father. I mean, he is exactly just that, but Shia has written and performed him with an understanding that even the worst people aren’t entirely just that. Recounting his own gruesome and cruel childhood, there’s a heartbreaking acknowledgment made by him, “I tried my best for the kid, but I’m in pain like a mother fucker.” It recalls a scene from the HBO series Enlightened, where in an episode aptly titled ‘Not Good Enough Mothers,’ Laura Dern’s Amy acknowledges “the mother is a child, too.” It’s in this scene of Honey Boy, we see James as the hurt child he still is.
Despite dealing with complicated emotions, Honey Boy is a simple story. And it’s in this simplicity that proves exactly why it’s so good.
I read a particular 1-star review that rambled on the misery of Honey Boy and belittled it as being obnoxious and self-indulgent. Sure, there’s a valid criticism to be made that Shia is in a privileged position where he is actually able to process and heal from his childhood trauma, but there’s also a lot to be said for the execution of this silver screen therapy. Memoirs often run the risk of being all too hokey, and yet here we have a childhood experience that couldn’t be any more specific in regards to being in the Hollywood system, but it’s only ever a minor detail. The focus of this film is the emotional turmoil between a child and their parent, and it’s a focus that is never distracted by the Hollywood setting.
Honey Boy is a special film and really offers an opportunity for the viewer to have their own catharsis during its viewing. There’s so much more I could write about – the incredible supporting cast, Alex Somer’s soundtrack. But as per Honey Boy’s storytelling, sometimes it’s best to keep it simple, and simply put – this is a fucking amazing film.
Director: Alma Har’el
Cast: Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, Shia LaBeouf
Writer: Shia LaBeouf