The last decade has been very complex for Shia LaBeouf. The well-known child actor who went on to lead multi-million dollar blockbusters stepped away from that pedestal to pursue different avenues in art. Not only did that lead to taking on dissimilar roles in films such as Fury and American Honey, but it as well birthed experience in writing and performance art. However, to say the least, the last handful of years also saw LaBeouf struggle within his personal life. In 2017, multiple public arrests resulting from disorderly conduct gave him no choice but to seek professional help in rehabilitation.
Two years later now and Honey Boy exists. To his own surprise, LaBeouf was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in rehab. How could this be if he has never served in war or survived a massive life-threatening incident? Through his time in recovery, LaBeouf shaped a piece of art like no other; a narrative of his childhood upbringing that bridges into the present in screenplay form. Revelations were made and demons dug themselves up from the past. LaBeouf, finally ready to unravel truths, reached out to director Alma Har’el (Bombay Beach) and the rest is now history.
Honey Boy will go down as one of the most beautiful pieces of modern meta storytelling. This is an autobiographical film by definition but operates under the guise of fictional identities. LaBeouf includes the most precise details about his life but gives himself a different name- Otis. Viewers follow Otis exit the Hollywood eye and enter rehab. In healing, he is asked to explore his memories and find what could have possibly started his path of trauma. This personal expedition leads him to one person- his father. The film then often travels back in time to his childhood acting days and dissects his worrisome relationship with his father. Otis quickly finds that this trauma and abuse is not so simple to deconstruct. If this was not already personal enough, LaBeouf also acts in the film but only takes the heavy mantle of playing Otis’ father James (the alternate name he gave his real father Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf).
This may already feel like Honey Boy is carrying too many heavy antics on its shoulders to stand firm. Ridiculous or peculiar as the concept may seem, the film absolutely never feels like a gimmick. One will have a hard time finding a more genuine demonstration of raw human emotion from the year so far. This is not meant to turn heads because of its concept, its meant to turn heads because of its authentic dive into a complex topic-abuse. LaBeouf may have initially written a script for his own self-care, but he and director Har’el found a way to craft a film with the immense universal power of reflection.
The cast vividly displays a collective understanding of character, representation, and message for the themes at hand. Most will be talking about Labeouf’s performance as his own father. One could easily call this one of, if not, the best dramatic performance of his entire career. Saying that seems easy because of the nature of this project, but it is truly meant without exaggeration. Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) is superb as young Otis. He is the rock of this narrative and if it were not for his compelling abilities- one’s attention could be lost in all the devices.
Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) pulls off the grinding task of not only making the older version of Otis feel like his own but also respectfully portray an individual with fragile mental health. Playing a role that requires important representation in any form of media can be highly challenging, but Hedges makes it clear that he approached Otis with good awareness. Hedges and Jupe create the rare Hollywood achievement of playing the same character at different ages in the same film and making it feel like natural growth instead of uninspired dual casting. It should also be noted that supporting characters played by Byron Bowers (The Chi), Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks), and singer-songwriter FKA Twigs make the film all the more enthralling.
These talented chess pieces are skillfully utilized by their director. One will be stunned to discover that Honey Boy is Har’el’s first feature-length directorial work that is not a documentary. Perhaps her eye for docu-style filmmaking gave her an edge within this autobiographical piece? Even so, the first watch of Honey Boy will make one recognize Har’el as a master artisan. She has such control over this script- taking one along for the ride using the most fashionable route. For a nonlinear narrative shifting back and forth in time, it is spectacular that the viewer never feels like they are going backward in terms of character even though they are literally seeing the past. Har’el and her editing team craft a praiseworthy balance of pacing and tasteful edits that always make the viewer feel like they are progressing with characters despite a nonlinear narrative.
Biographical works, even despite their worth at times, are often subject to common tropes and visual restraints to feel more grounded. Har’el has such competency for the ideas at play that Honey Boy feels grounded in terms of it being substantially human. Unlike other similar works though, this film is cinematically elevated thanks to her artistic flavor. She makes out of the box decisions with the camera and elements within the frame that make for some of the most engaging images of the year. One almost gets pleasantly lost in all the style, but not until Har’el knowingly brings them back into the scope of the film’s themes. Credit also goes to cinematographer Natasha Braier (The Neon Demon) for having an equal part in constructing these moving visuals.
Perhaps the film’s ultimate triumph is the handling of its themes of abuse. Honey Boy makes the case that Labeouf was abused by his father to the point of creating long-lasting trauma. Most movies will stop at that point and call it a day. The film examines how abuse (especially mental) is not always black and white. Unfortunately, trauma sometimes cannot help but be passed down lineage despite goodwill. Certain acts of abuse cannot be forgiven but how does one spare forgiveness in the situations they are not sure of? Honey Boy expresses LaBeouf’s methods of dealing with these issues and offers insight for those who currently might be unsure just like he once was.
LaBeouf is not asking anyone to forgive the actions that sent him to rehab in the first place. This is merely a window into his experience- something that many also share. He used an artform he was familiar with to open himself up to others. Despite all, that is what cinema is for. This is a much-needed reminder to how all-encompassing of an art form film is. Thanks to a collaboration between LaBeouf’s genuineness and Har’els brilliance, Honey Boy is nothing short of a masterwork.