Shia LaBeouf is aware that his off-screen reputation and media narrative is bigger than many of the films he plays in. This is perhaps one of the smaller reasons he sought creative reclamation in Honey Boy, an intimately personal film he writes and stars in, and which acts as a poignant self-portrait. It is also a wildly inventive film for both LaBeouf, the actor, and Alma Har’el, the director. Making her first narrative feature after several documentaries, she pulls from LaBeouf’s own truth to create a bittersweet fiction bathed in authenticity, which is all the more impressive since LaBeouf refuses to actually portray himself.
A semi-autobiographical piece, Honey Boy is an open invitation to study LaBeouf’s childhood in which the actor embodies a version of his father. Technically the troubled child star at the heart of the film is named Otis Lort, played as a boy of 12-years-old by Noah Jupe and 22-years-old by Lucas Hedges at different points in the film. But Har’el and LaBeouf are not shy about us making the connection. The opening shot is Hedges’ budding movie star on the edge of a breakdown as he stands in a shot with a wire on his back, waiting to be ripped away into a hazy golden-hued sunset of carnage like a million Michael Bay paper heroes. (Hardly the type of film opening that usually plays at Sundance.) This sense of empty buffoonery is mirrored in how he is later introduced in flashbacks as a preteen who is still flying through the air in order to have pie land on his face for an unnamed sitcom that likely would work well on the Disney Channel.
In both cases, he’s acting a clown, although the only person who might view it that way is his father James, who is played near unrecognizably by LaBeouf himself. Long shaggy hair in the back that tries to obscure the receding hairline on top, LaBeouf vanishes into a performance that clearly means more to him than any other in his career. Playing a variation on the man who raised him, this James Lort is a complex and literal tragic clown. Once a rodeo show entertainer, with pancake makeup and constant pratfalls, James’ lifetime of drink-fueled darkness has long ended his marriage and left him a felon with only one possible job: acting as his son’s manager, personal assistant, smoking buddy, and ultimate boogeyman.
In the sequences set during 1995, James both loves and torments his son by pushing him to be funnier, faster, and a better actor, even while he fails wholly as a father to the boy he wishes to live vicariously through. The wreckage of this approach to parenting is juxtaposed in the sequences set during 2005—the year that LaBeouf was cast in Transformers. In these sequences, Hedges’ movie star winds up in a rehab center for what may be the first of many stints, and is forced by his parole officer to come to terms with his childhood and a love that has withered despite remaining full.
An infinitely meta and self-aware film, right down to its fourth-wall bending denouement, Honey Boy is a remarkably beautiful achievement for all involved. Clearly a risky gambit for LaBeouf, who exposes a whole Pandora’s Box of personal demons in the screenplay, the characters he’s created on the page speak with candor instead of pretension, and heart rather than bitterness. And in the hands of Har’nel’s longanimous direction, LaBeouf pinpoints much of that early applauded talent while essaying a man of great importance in his life. It is an understatement to say that he gives the performance of his career.
A hard-living and embittered fellow, James is a messy character who could be easy to hate. Mercurial, condescending, and even physically violent—especially with those he views as a threat to his role in Otis’ life—James suffers from a fierce inadequacy that self-perpetuates due to his continued failings. Yet while creating this personage, a sense of affection emanates from LaBeouf because he makes James’ love for his son palpable, even though James’ greatest weakness is never being able to verbally or physically show it. This effect is heightened due to a wonderful chemistry between the screenwriter/star and Jupe as young Otis.
Already well-known after Wonder and last year’s A Quiet Place, Jupe displays the elusive talent, especially in younger actors, to be able to carry a scene without any dialogue. Jupe provides an earnest desperation of a child who is growing up too fast to understand that his father is as much his employee as parent—yet it is the latter reason he puts up with James’ constant disappointment. A relationship more about the unspoken things than the actual sitcom bits that James is trying to prepare the lad for, theirs is a potent melancholy that echoes through the years, seeping into Hedges’ performance.
The conversation of two different eras held by the characters, and moderated with an empathetic grace by Har’el, is illuminating for LaBeouf as a person as well as his and everyone else’s talent. Har’el shifts between handheld close-ups of gritty despair to an intentionally dreamlike joy in moments where James and Otis’ minds are one and they’re not actually interacting—such as whenever Otis is in-character on a television set or the pair are flying across a bridge on a motorcycle, Otis gripping to his father now that they’re at last headed in the same direction. Coupled with Alex Somers’ wistful score, there are brief moments of childlike magic that girds the film with a fleeting happiness, and informs why Hedges’ Otis cannot condemn his father’s shortcomings.
Late in the film, Hedges tells Otis’ parole officer that the only thing his father gave him of value was pain and that she (and presumably the world) wants to take that away from him. There is anger in this irony, as well as a knowledge that even if pain is the lone, lousy gift, it can still be given with love. Honey Boy is likewise a film full of pain and, at times, rage. Yet it understands the beauty in that. By sharing it as such, it adds dimension and feeling to LaBeouf, changing our own perceptions of his talent forever.