Shia LaBeouf — in a live-wire performance that jumps off the screen — plays a version of his own loose-cannon father in Honey Boy, leaving Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges to portray two stages of the artist as a young man, at 12 and 22 respectively. The names have been changed, presumably to protect the use of poetic license. But there’s no mistaking that the boy, known as Otis, and the father, a hot-tempered rodeo clown and recovering addict known as James Lort, are drawn from life. As James and Otis circle and evade each other at a rundown Los Angeles apartment complex — HQ for Otis while he makes movies and TV shows and dad serves as his unlikely father protector — the movie draws a bead on an abusive father-son relationship that still allows for love.
Directed by Alma Har’el from LaBeouf’s riveting Rorschach of a script, Honey Boy feels real and lived in even as it pinwheels around in different time frames. That it works so well is a tribute to Har’el, an Israel-born director of documentaries such as Bombay Beach and LoveTrue, the latter executive-produced by LaBeouf, who instinctively knew Har’el would bring the right blend of fact and fiction to make his story fly on-screen.
That it does. Har’el brings a sense of intense reality to the scenes of Otis on set as boy and man. Strapped into a harness for a difficult action stunt, Otis looks to his dad, who is usually distracted by flirting with extras or planning ways to chip some cash off his son’s paycheck. The film flashes forward to catch the older Otis (Hedges is strikingly good) working out his anger issues and bouts of alcoholism through rehab — an allusion to LaBeouf’s own stints in what he calls “head camp.” LaBeouf’s career as a performance artist — on the red carpet wearing a paper bag on his head with writing that declares “I am not famous anymore” — will have to wait for another movie. The truth is LaBeouf is famous and his recent work in such films as Nymphomaniac, American Honey and The Peanut Butter Falcon has been justly acclaimed. Still, playing a version of his dad may be his most challenging and compelling work to date.
LaBeouf has said that he wrote Honey Boy as a therapy project and sometimes it plays that way — as if a solution to the problems Otis faces could be found in rehab-speak. But the most powerful scenes in film take place with the younger Otis — Jupe’s performance is astounding — when humor, affection, and harsh reality fight to co-exist. We see Otis seek comfort from an older neighbor, a sex worker and fellow abuse victim played by musician FKA Twigs. And there’s also an ineffectual Big Brother (Clifton Collins Jr.) arranged by his absent mother who works in another city. No matter. It’s James who is most often the boy’s only recourse. Watching a child wrangle with a damaged adult who childishly resents working for his son, ignores his best interests, and yet loves him unequivocally is the core of Honey Boy. It’s a movie that knows in its bones that there are no easy answers. Just the human struggle to find connection. And it’s that vision of unadorned, no-bullshit life, played out against the background of Hollywood film fantasy, that makes a connection so strong that audiences won’t want to let go.