REVIEW: Honey Boy [2019]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 94 minutes
    Release Date: November 8th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Amazon Studios
    Director(s): Alma Har’el
    Writer(s): Shia LaBeouf

Why am I here?

The bane of childhood stardom is that nothing you do will ever be a secret again. Your success will be written in black and white in the trades. Personal relationships will be speculated upon in the tabloids. And mistakes—large or small—will trend like wildfire on the internet until they become the prevalent way by which you will be defined. Shia LaBeouf experienced every last bit of this with a keen, if imperfect, vantage point allowing him to use it to his advantage through performance art pieces that served as a means to simultaneously confound and promote. Even so, however, the inevitability was always self-destruction. His façade was but a thin veil shrouding a darker truth desperate to escape regardless of his conscious desire to let it.

Like in the past, though, LaBeouf found an avenue for it to mean something. When his court-mandated stint in rehab after a 2017 public drunkenness arrest in Georgia bought him a PTSD diagnosis and an assignment to write about his childhood trauma suffered opposite a domineeringly alcoholic father, he eventually put pen to paper en route to creating the script for Honey Boy. Half catharsis and half opportunity to set the record straight, LaBeouf places his alter ego Otis Lort under the same arduous circumstances he remembers all too well. There he is as a twelve-year old actor (Noah Jupe) employing his felon father (LaBeouf) as his chaperone. And there he is as a twenty-two-year old patient (Lucas Hedges) deflecting with anger that the pain fuels his talent.

Friend and documentarian Alma Har’el read the first draft and loved it enough to come onboard as director—a position perfectly-suited for someone who already knew a lot of LaBeouf’s past and understood the conflict between how his youth helped and hurt his growth while locked in the perpetual spotlight of celebrity. Something must be said about this intimate and artistic connection to the material because it’s one thing to pour one’s heart onto the page and another to see it translated on-screen. It definitely helps that the man who experienced it was on set too since only he and his father Jeffrey knew what went on behind closed doors. Only he could comprehend the mixture of self-loathing and love to do James Lort’s own internal war justice.

So we watch a montage of older Otis acting briefly before getting handled as another prop on countless movies. He performs, struggles to take off his proverbial strings, and finds himself drunk, bloodied, and belligerent enough to wake in an outpatient facility with serious ramifications on his future in court. It’s his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) that causes him and us to travel back in time to his pre-teen years living out of a motel and riding to set on the back of his dad’s motorcycle. This is when we realize Otis has always been a prop pushed and pulled by directors and James alike despite ultimately being the one in control. Everyone wanted him to be something and rarely did they ask who he was beneath it.

James is obviously the worst because he resents the fact that his son is excelling in show business where he couldn’t. He still demands that his clowning experience be a means with which to dictate Otis’ performance, though. He creates impossible expectations that prove meaningless since he can’t be relied upon to fulfill his end of the bargain where achieving them is concerned. He might be four years sober, but his rage remains to project self-hatred on those around him whether the prostitutes across the parking lot (highlighted by FKA Twigs‘ Shy Girl) that remind him his presence was bought by his kid rather than given by him or those positive influences in Otis’ life (Clifton Collins Jr.‘s “Big Brother” Tom) ensuring he never forgets his own inadequacies.

It’s this refusal to ignore James’ complexity that puts Honey Boy on another level narratively and emotionally because this isn’t just Shia LaBeouf placing blame for his adult struggles at his father’s feet. This is about confronting what happened with new eyes—appreciating with hindsight the good and bad while figuring out healthy ways in which to reconcile them together. Instead of forgiveness or blame, LaBeouf’s script provides understanding. He strips away the noise of outsiders and the conflict within himself to approach the past with as transparent a filter as possible. We’re witnessing how their individual pain relates to each other and how it’s exacerbated by their inability to acknowledge that its existence partially lies in their selfish desire to wield it as a reminder of their identity.

At some point we see an attempt to co-exist turn into a war wherein victory is making the other feel as insignificant as possible. They push each other into corners that make escape difficult unless it’s through the door they know will create more trouble. Just because Otis had to steel himself to the abuse and return fire to survive back then, however, doesn’t mean he can’t recall it now with sadness instead. He explains how pain is motivation in his acting, but looking back with a fresh perspective to turn scowls into the tears he wasn’t allowed to shed won’t remove it. If anything it might make it more potent. Maybe Otis and James can then become vulnerable enough to accept what happened and recognize its impact.

Reaching that point means tapping into hurt to portray its power. Hedges isn’t on-screen much, but he possesses the anger necessary to avoid his truth with sarcasm until the walls come tumbling down. And Jupe carries the film with a stirring performance well beyond his years that balance an unrequited youth against professional responsibilities. Having LaBeouf on-set to assist in getting them to those raw places had to be invaluable just like it was for him to wield his own frustrations and insecurities as keys to access his father’s through the vessel of James Lort. Har’el deftly shifts between past and present to expose this comparison and show how much the son resembles the parent. The difference is that Otis might still heal whereas his father sadly succumbed.

[1] Noah Jupe in HONEY BOY courtesy of Amazon Studios
[2] Shia LaBeouf in HONEY BOY courtesy of Amazon Studios
[3] Lucas Hedges in HONEY BOY courtesy of Amazon Studios

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