Shia LaBeouf’s personal problems have been many and well documented. From drink and drugs related incidents to wearing a paper bag over his head, the former child star has become one of the most meme-able of celeb, yet underneath has always lurked an actor with undoubted talent, whether he chooses to use it or not. 2019 may prove to be something of a turning point. The release of The Peanut Butter Falcon a few weeks back indicated that he was back, but this time on a more stable footing. Honey Boy takes that return a stage further.
A recent stint in rehab encouraged him to write about his childhood and, in particular his turbulent relationship with his father. It’s provided the basis for this fictionalised father and son story, in which he plays his own father. Showy or cathartic? You decide. It’s the portrait of a child star, told in both the present day and the past. The older Otis (Lucas Hedges) works in action movies, specialising in stunts, but away from the set he descends into anger and binge drinking. A road accident sends him to a rehab clinic, where he’s encouraged to address his past in an effort to understand his own behaviour. This is shown in a series of flashbacks, concentrating on his 12 year old self (Noah Jupe) and his time living in a motel with his father, James (LaBeouf), a former entertainer with a criminal record.
The rockiness in their relationship comes from a number of sources, from the fact that the boy is essentially the father’s employer (he acts as the child star’s chaperone) to the reasons behind that criminal record (the worst one is that he’s a sex offender) and the acrimonious separation between the father and Otis’s mother, which places the young boy slap bang in the middle of their vicious arguments. One especially upsetting scene sees the boy acting as a go-between, essentially acting out what his mother is saying on the phone for the father’s benefit. No child should ever be in this position, but far too many are. James is also a Vietnam vet who took copious amounts of cocaine while on his tour of duty, and is now a dried out alcoholic: giving up the booze is an achievement in itself, but he’s unable to tackle his own erratic temperament which means more suffering for the boy, both mental and physical. As the older Otis’s therapist points out, he has to get rid of what doesn’t work in his life to move forward. And at the top of the list is that relationship with his father.
The complexity of their relationship is where the film really scores, both in terms of LaBeouf’s writing and the performances from the three main actors. You may lose count of the number of times that James behaves appallingly to his young son, but we’re told enough about him to realise that he’s not essentially a monster. It’s a nuanced role for LaBeouf the actor, one that has a sleazy side (that lank hair and John Lennon glasses paint the picture to perfection) and yet has a certain beguiling charm. As the younger Otis, Noah Jupe cements his reputation as one of the best young actors around: it’s an appealing and sensitive performance of maturity way beyond his comparatively tender 14 years. His unhappiness comes together in the angry shape of Lucas Hedges, who brings his usual intensity to the screen yet makes you long for him to play somebody just a little happier. He’s earned it.
Honey Boy is, inevitably, a deeply personal film and one that perhaps never comes to the climax it seems to be looking for. But it has an honesty that earns your total respect. Self-therapy on the big screen it may be, but it’s never less than moving, touching and, at times, uncomfortably truthful.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Sony Pictures | UK, 6 December 2019 | Dir. Alma Har’el | Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe.