Shia LaBeouf has always been a character. In 2014, at the Berlin Film Festival, he wore a paper bag over his head reading “I am Not Famous Anymore.” Later that same year, he performed #IAMSORRY, where he wore the paper bag again and let people visit him in a room while he sat silently, sometimes weeping. On top of these performances were multiple arrests for public drunkenness, that culminated in a 2017 incident after which he attended a 12-step rehab and anger management program. That is where “Honey Boy,” written by LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har’el (“LoveTrue”), was written.
In an opening montage centered around LaBeouf’s breakthrough in the early 2000s, Otis, LaBeouf’s cinematic alter ego played by Lucas Hedges (“Boy Erased”), falls apart in a booze soaked spiral as he films blockbuster after blockbuster. It’s jarring, almost painfully so, making it the perfect way to convey a fractured, addicted headspace. After a horrific car wreck and an arrest where he spars with police officers, Otis is sent to rehab.
Then the movie jumps to Otis’s childhood. Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”), a child actor, plays young Otis. His father, played by LaBeouf, acts as his chaperone. He’s a recovering alcoholic and convicted felon, constantly hitting on the nearest woman and reminding anyone and everyone about his glory days as a rodeo clown. He’s latched onto his son for the money from his acting success, not to right any wrongs.
Yet this is no caricature — LaBeouf has never performed this well or this honestly. Playing his own father, LaBeouf wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s not afraid to rip it to shreds right in front of one’s eyes.
The bulk of the movie is conversations between Otis and his father, with each character asking for what the other cannot give them. Otis needs a stable adult in his life, while his father wants his son to forgive, condone and encourage his bad choices. While their relationship is anything but healthy, there’s still love between them, which, for better or for worse, makes it hard for either of them to step away.
Adult Otis watches this all play out with the audience, trying to come to terms with it. The rehab scenes are just as honest as the flashbacks, with LaBeouf psychoanalyzing his own anger issues, narcissism, trauma and addiction. It’s incredibly brave.
“Honey Boy” is a riveting dialogue between past and present; between violence and trauma. It’s genuinely heartbreaking. There are no easy answers, and one gets the sense that LaBeouf himself still isn’t sure how to feel about his father.
Looking back, LaBeouf’s performance art doesn’t seem so silly. Of course he would try and avoid fame after what his childhood was like. Plus, what’s so different between making a movie like “Honey Boy” and sitting alone with strangers and crying one’s eyes out, laying personal trauma bare for all the world to see? It may not be the most subtle, structured or healthy way to go about things, but it makes for remarkable cinema.