The Sundance Film Festival: Final days

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 4:34pm

"Honey Boy"

"Honey Boy" Buy this photo
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The last few days of Sundance are an overwhelming, delirious mix of exhilaration and exhaustion. In between attending the final screenings of the festival and being holed up in a coffee shop writing reviews for hours, I spent my remaining time in Park City at a wonderfully animated panel with Desiree Akhavan, the winner of last year’s Grand Jury Prize for “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” and Nisha Ganatra, the director of the Mindy Kaling-penned comedy “Late Night.” The conversation between Akhavan and Ganatra was better than I could’ve expected. Along with going off on hilarious tangents and spilling tea on people they’ve worked with, they each discussed their backgrounds studying film at NYU Tisch, directing TV and movies, how they’ve grown as artists from their previous projects and the challenges of making low-budget productions.

Although meeting Akhavan and Ganatra after the panel was one of the many great moments during the festival, my packed showing of “Honey Boy” was just as unforgettable. The star of the show Noah Jupe and the director Alma Ha’rel (“Bombay Beach”) were in attendance as were other famous folks like Kiersey Clemons (“Hearts Beat Loud”), Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”) and Millicent Simmonds (“A Quiet Place”). During the post-screening Q&A, out stepped “Honey Boy” writer and actor Shia Labeouf, and naturally, the crowd greeted him with rapturous applause.

Equipped with a green ushanka, Labeouf entertained the audience with his lovable weirdo personality, unspooling a series of stream-of-consciousness reflections with a disarming gentleness about working through his demons while making “Honey Boy.” As the Q&A grew more emotional, Jupe leaned his head on Ha’rel’s shoulder, a loving sight to behold, while she discussed her own experiences with having an alcoholic father. One might think there’s an air of manipulative, uncomfortable performativity with sentimental moments like these, but judging from the film itself, which you’ll read my thoughts about below, nothing felt more authentic.

My final, sold-out screening of the festival, “Late Night,” was similarly ecstatic, despite no celebrities in attendance. Though the comedy itself was a tad underwhelming, the audience’s engaged reactions — lots of laughing, especially during one early scene when Mindy Kaling’s character gets hit with a bag of garbage — made the whole experience worthwhile.

‘Honey Boy’:

Writing about the past traumas that continue to haunt us is perhaps the best and most accessible way to overcome them. But trying to perform our traumas? That’s a whole other kind of transcendent catharsis. This is the heady goal actor-writer-provocateur Shia Labeouf (“Nymphomaniac”) attempts to achieve — exceptionally so, if I might add — in the script for his trippy, brilliant meta memoir “Honey Boy.” Directed with sharp sensitivity by Alma Ha’rel (“Bombay Beach”), “Honey Boy” operates as both a harrowing tale of child abuse and PTSD and a psychological and emotional deep dive into Labeouf’s psyche.

Like a buried, bruised memory come to life, “Honey Boy” is as unabashedly raw in its depiction of troublesome father-son dynamics as it is vibrant in its fantastic performances. Some might find it difficult to watch the physical mistreatment Labeouf endured as a child, but almost everyone can relate to the feeling of immense pressure our parents put on us to fulfill the grand ideal life that they never had the opportunity to live through themselves. That feeling is no more actualized than in the title of the film itself, which stems from an endearing nickname Labeouf’s father gave him while raising Labeouf in a Hollywood motel to support his burgeoning career as a young TV star on Disney Channel’s “Even Stevens.”

Blending fiction and reality, “Honey Boy” cements Labeouf’s relationship with his father as the foundation of its premise, but projects it through characters with different names. Standing in for Shia’s persona is Otis Lort (played by both Noah Jupe, “Suburbicon” and Lucas Hedges, “Boy Erased”), a successful young actor who uses his craft to channel his creative spirit and mask the loneliness of his dismal environment at home. And standing in for Shia’s father is James Lort (played with magnificence by Labeouf himself), a recovering alcoholic rodeo clown who simultaneously praises and envies his son’s newfound fame.

The inner turmoil wrestling inside Shia — oops, I mean Otis — is distilled beautifully in the film’s phenomenal long-take opener, where an older Otis, strapped into a harness, is thrust backward during an explosion stunt on what looks like a set of a “Transformers” sequel. It becomes immediately clear what Labeouf and Ha’rel (and Hedges, for that matter) are trying to convey in this one scene: You can’t escape the pain of the past and its overwhelming pull. After running into the law over drunken misconduct, Otis is sent to rehab and encouraged by his therapist (Laura San Giacomo, “Sex, Lies and Videotape”) to revisit his childhood and explore his suppressed anger. From there, the film shifts back and forth between two time periods in Otis’s life: the older Otis struggles with deep-seated, unaddressed frustrations while the younger Otis grapples with quiet resentment toward his father.

Within its therapeutic narrative, “Honey Boy” injects these two concurrent storylines with a compelling amount of tenderness and vulnerability provided by the main cast. In the limited screen time he’s given, Hedges, reliably mesmerizing as ever, elevates his character’s blunt mannerisms and unhinged personality into more than just a solid Shia Labeouf caricature. Labeouf is transfixing as James, latching onto the empathetic nerve of his father’s own internal troubles with a surprising amount of depth. It takes so much courage to portray the person who basically is the cause of all of your anguish. But of the three, Jupe shines the most. The up-and-coming British actor delivers a marvelously mature and soulful performance, taking challenging material and executing it as if he’s been in the business for decades. Along with his turn in “A Quiet Place,” Jupe has secured his status as a star in the making with “Honey Boy.”

Though the performances alone are enthralling, “Honey Boy” is definitely not without its flaws. There’s a sweet albeit lazy and inconsequential subplot involving a sex worker named Little Q (enigmatic musician FKA Twigs in her feature debut), who acts as a sort of surrogate mother character for young Otis. Even though her brief friendship with Otis is touching in parts, the lack of substance brought to her character and their dynamic as a whole wears down the infectiously scrappy pacing of “Honey Boy.” The same goes for Tom (Clifton Collins Jr., “The Mule”), a man hired by an agency to accompany Otis on social excursions when James proves to be unavailable. While his character is given much more emotional weight than Q’s, Tom’s presence in the film doesn’t make much of a lasting impression.

With that said, “Honey Boy” is an exemplary Capital-D Drama whose intense impact will linger long after the credits roll. Consider this Shia Labeouf’s magical return to the spotlight, as we finally get to understand the fragmented, complex mind behind the chaotic, much-publicized image we’re so used to seeing.

‘The Report’:

The easiest way to parse through the intellectual density of Scott Z. Burns’s “The Report” is following the film’s visual symbolism. In an early scene, Senate member Dan Jones (a stellar Adam Driver, “Paterson”) cradles a snow globe figurine of the Capitol Building while sitting in front of White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”). Their conversation is not very memorable, but Dan’s mission is immediately apparent from the way he holds onto that snow globe: He wants to infiltrate an impenetrable government, whatever the risks may be.

Thus sets the tone for “The Report,” a very academic and dry but well-acted political drama that excels in conveying a steadfast message about speaking truth to power. It’s the kind of juicy real-life insider narrative that seems to be in high demand these days, given the critical and commercial success of similarly fact-based dramas like “Spotlight” and “The Post.” But while those films focus on teams of people fighting against a specific kind of systemic corruption in America, the heroes in “The Report,” also based on true events, revolve around mostly two people — Dan Jones and Senator Diane Feinstein (a superb Annette Bening, “20th Century Women”), who oversaw Jones in his decade-long investigation of the CIA’s torture interrogations.

Set over the course of two presidential administrations — starting in the aftermath of 9/11 and ending right after President Obama’s re-election in 2012 — “The Report” blazes through Jones’s quest for holding the CIA accountable in their brutal and immoral mistreatment of suspects associated with al-Qaeda. Offering another award-worthy performance after his Oscar-nominated turn in “BlacKkKlansman,” Driver guides us through the heaps of secrets buried by the CIA and other facets of the American government, maintaining our attention with a charismatic, desperate hunger to combat the forces that seem impossible to supersede.

As the film’s sometimes disorienting shift in time proves, the 7,000-page long titular report took several years and distressing committee meetings for it to even see the light of day, an astonishing fact that Burns emphasizes without being completely overt about it. Much like “Zero Dark Thirty,” another similarly-themed film that gets a tongue-in-cheek reference in this film, “The Report” paints a multilayered portrait on both the depravity of the interrogations and the journey to expose it.

There’s a lot of action and explanation happening during these scenes, mostly due to Burns’s dialogue-heavy script, which churns out a head-spinning bevy of tidbits a mile a minute. While asking its audience to hang onto every word may been a tricky task, Burns and the rest of the cast — which features a breathtaking ensemble of talented underrated actors like Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”), Maura Tierney (“The Affair”), Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”), Tim Blake Nelson (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) and Corey Stoll (“Ant-Man”) — somehow pull it off. The more facts Jones accumulates, the more awe-inspiring his pursuit becomes.

“The Report” might entice more American history buffs than the average moviegoer, but Driver’s standout performance and the always-timely theme of exposing corruption also make a gripping case for informing the unknown public about an issue that still remains both pertinent to today’s political landscape and our nation’s history with suppressing its uglier side.

‘Late Night’:

Crowd pleasers often face a somewhat disheartening reality of becoming the cinematic comfort food for audiences who just want a fun, safe and light-hearted movie they can enjoy on a Saturday night or on a plane if there’s nothing else to watch. It’s disheartening in the sense that these kinds of movies take a potentially great premise and end up not taking many risks, favoring a tame, predictable story arc and an unnecessary amount of subplots over memorable characters, a well-developed plot and meaningful dialogue. Sometimes, we need crowd pleasers because they can provide us with a satisfactory amount of escapism, something that even prestige pictures and superhero blockbusters can’t match. But other times, we need crowd pleasers to be more than just an easily digestible piece of filmmaking.

Nisha Ganatra’s “Late Night” unfortunately falls into this latter category of crowd pleasers. Despite a spectacular performance from Emma Thompson (“The Children Act”) and some great zingers from a script by Mindy Kaling (“A Wrinkle in Time”), the innocuous earnestness of “Late Night” keeps it from being anything more than an affable, middle-of-the-road mainstream comedy. That might be good news for people who want just that and perhaps even more so for unabashed fans of Kaling’s previous comedic outings on “The Mindy Project” and “The Office.” But for others, “Late Night” may seem slight in comparison to other works like it.  

The film follows two women both on the opposite spectrum of success in the late night world. There’s Katherine Newbury (Thompson), a snarky Manhattan-based talk show host who’s past her prime and in need of something to reignite her career before the head of the network (Amy Ryan, “Beautiful Boy”) replaces her with a raunchy on-the-rise comedian named Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, “Blockers”). And then there’s Molly Patel (Kaling), a giddy nuclear power plant employee and stand-up comic with dreams of becoming a writer for Katherine’s show. Fortunately for Molly, the timing couldn’t have been better. Katherine is forced to bring her onto the show since she doesn’t have a single female writer, prompting Molly to prove that she’s more than a diversity hire.

This exciting conflict about racial and gender politics in the workplace gets a few gratifying moments, but sadly, it’s undermined by a number of cliché subplots involving Katherine’s husband Walter (John Lithgow, “Daddy’s Home 2”) and two of Katherine’s writers (Reid Scott, “Veep” and Hugh Dancy, “Ella Enchanted”). Normally, the subplots in a crowd pleaser are meant to broaden the world of the story beyond the main characters while tying into the film’s themes, but they feel like a major distraction here, seeming to only fill in the gaps between with Katherine’s waning success and Molly’s ascent in the late night comedy world.

When the plot does focus on Katherine and Molly’s turbulent relationship, “Late Night” finds its footing. Many have already compared the dynamic between Kaling and Thompson — and the tone of the film as a whole — to that of Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”: An older, hard-to-please woman in power slowly comes to appreciate her younger, sprightly protegée. While “The Devil Wears Prada” was a far better film (and an intelligent crowd pleaser!), “Late Night” manages to wring out some delicious and silly interplay between Katherine and Molly, who forge an unlikely friendship as Molly helps Katherine rebuild her brand and maintain her staple in the male-dominated late night game. A gung-ho Thompson also deserves merit for bringing both the gravitas and humor to a two-dimensional antagonist, even besting Kaling’s comic timing at times.

Still, one can’t help but wonder why “Late Night” isn’t as great or groundbreaking as it could be. Even with a few clever, gut-busting jokes and some sly hints of social commentary, Kaling’s screenplay feels oddly bare-bones for such a meaty premise, especially when it comes to the more dramatic moments in the story. Along with the subplots, most of which are underdeveloped and even abandoned toward the end, the dialogue treads on the painfully on-the-nose, like when Katherine literally says at one point to her team of writers, “The stakes could not be higher!” What’s possibly more disappointing is how the script underuses the talented slew of comedians in its cast, including a standout John Early (“The Disaster Artist”), who plays a cheeky member on Katherine’s writing staff and Lithgow, who is relegated to a boring supportive husband type.

While it may not be a total success on a storytelling front, “Late Night” includes enough laughs and jabs at the current late night comedy scene to forgive its uninspired and somewhat forgettable narrative. You’ll chuckle a lot, maybe even tear up a bit, but the rest leaves something to be desired.