Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
One of the best decisions writer and star Shia LaBeouf (Borg vs. McEnroe) made in the run-up to Honey Boy was hiring someone other than himself to direct. He may or may not have skills behind the camera, but the raw intimacy of the narrative benefits from the modicum of distance a different director brings to it. Alma Har’el (LoveTrue) lends an artistically minded critical eye to the affair, expertly guiding LaBeouf towards a superb performance as his own father. She also has a generally fine sense of composition and editing, able to navigate the embedded sudden shifts in time and place. Honey Boy is a wonderful work of autofiction, a cathartic howling into the winds of cinema after which, one hopes, pain and misery make way for a new beginning. Whether that is true for LaBeouf, we the audience emerge refreshed from the emotional journey within.
The film starts with a literal bang, twentysomething Otis (Lucas Hedges, Ben Is Back, standing in for the real-life LaBeouf), harnessed up, yanked back by a simulated explosion. We then march through a quick montage of similar filmed moments, Otis’ expression always dead, except when he is in his trailer, drinking and having sex. When he subsequently gets pulled over by the police for driving drunk, it’s hard to tell, at first, if this is meant to be yet another movie moment within the larger film, or the actual Otis getting arrested. And that’s the brilliant point: he has no boundaries, no sense of self; he’s an actor, out of control.
At this point, we cut to the boy that he was, at 12, this time played by Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place), with LaBeouf appearing as James, his ne’er-do-well dad (who calls his son “honey boy,” hence the title). A hard man, he straddles the line between abuse and encouragement, acting as manager to the child star he has somehow fathered. Mom is out of the picture, at present, the parents unamicably divorced and she too busy with her own job to supervise her child’s career. James may be a colossal mess, but Otis needs a guardian, and dad has shown up, freshly sober. If he can just remain on the wagon, perhaps things won’t go too downhill.
That doesn’t quite happen as planned, and so poor Otis has more than a rough time dealing not only with the pressures of early success (from a hit TV show) but with the challenges of a father who can’t keep it together. He finds solace in the gentle, platonic embrace of a teenage prostitute (FKA Twigs), who lives across the way in the long-stay motel where he and dad shack up, as well in the mentorship provided by big brother Tom (Clifton Collins Jr., Transpecos), but it’s James who exerts, sadly, the largest influence. As we cut back and forth between adult and child Otis, we see the PTSD damage that James hath wrought. It’s a miracle that Otis makes it as far as he does.
All of this comes from a place of self-awareness, given the very real public downward spiral of LaBeouf, the man. It’s a film that makes no excuses, but merely tries to offer a vision of a possible way forward. I have no particular stake in LaBeouf’s struggle, beyond admiring anyone who tries to become a better human. Art as expiation of sin can be harrowing to behold, but Har’el and her cast make it work. It’s bitter tea, but the fervent creative honey of everyone involved helps with the aftertaste.