Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon releases the film on Friday, November 12.
Few actors have engendered the level of curiosity and confusion surrounding Shia LaBeouf, yet it’s seen little impact on his movie career. LaBeouf’s arrests for public intoxication and his mixed bag of performance art may have hindered his public profile, but they never downgraded the quality of a risky and substantial filmography. Now, the dueling facets of LaBeouf’s career and public life have collided in a most intriguing fashion.
With “Honey Boy,” LaBeouf has scripted a rambling, understated autobiographical summation of his troubled youth, pinning much of his rough entryway into young adulthood on his abusive father — an exuberant role that the actor himself embodies with plenty of unsettling machismo, but it’s one of only a few meta flourishes in an otherwise straightforward addiction drama. Directed by expressionistic documentarian Alma Ha’rel in her narrative debut, “Honey Boy” benefits from the filmmaker’s keen eye, even as it stuffs real-life trauma into conventional beats.
However, while “Honey Boy” adheres to a traditional playbook for naturalistic stories of troubled youth, it begs for deeper readings from its very first shot: A 2005-era Shia, lightly fictionalized as “Otis” (Lucas Hedges), endures some explosive stunt work on the set of a big Hollywood production that could only be “Transformers.” Glimpsed in a dense montage engaged in a remarkable blur of production schedules, heavy drinking, and hookups, Otis has barely spoken a word before he’s flipped his car and landed in jail, followed by rehab. Once pressured by his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) to consider his past, the flashback begins: It’s 1995, as pre-teen Otis (Noah Jupe) finds himself at the center of another insubstantial production, this time a discardable kids show that could only be “Even Stevens.”
From there, “Honey Boy” settles into its two time periods, making unsubtle connections between the way LaBeouf’s impoverished wreck of a dad (here named James, based on the real-life Jeffrey) pushed his son around while stumbling through a series of poor decisions, and the eventual impact it had on LaBeouf’s own rocky trajectory. Diagnosed early on with post-traumatic stress disorder, twentysomething Otis grapples with his memories to make sense of his broken home. While Hedges inhabits the role with little more than furtive glances and the occasional tantrum, the bulk of the movie involves his younger counterpart. Fortunately, he’s the movie’s saving grace: Jupe, briefly glanced in “A Quiet Place,” takes center stage in “Honey Boy” as a bonafide breakout, imbuing the pint-sized figure with a fiery confidence to resist his father’s cruelty over the course of the concise story.
Jupe’s subtle turn stands out opposite LaBeouf’s less convincing transformation, which finds the actor wrapped in a bald wig, shoulder-length hair, messy sideburns, and visible gut — while donning a twangy southern accent that’s tough to buy no matter how much it draws from the real McCoy. Nevertheless, LaBeouf’s hyperbolic performance finds its groove with time, as the full scope of James’ history becomes clear in a series of fleeting encounters: A convicted sex offender and Vietnam vet who did jail time, divorced his wife, and dealt drugs, James checks nearly every box off the “deadbeat dad” profile. And in a flourish that would seem over the top if it weren’t drawn from truth, he makes a living as a clown.
The ensuing narrative has a lot of textbook moments, some clumsier than others: recurring reminders that the affection-averse James refuses to hold his son’s hand, Otis’ warm companionship with an older neighborhood girl (FKA Twigs) in their budget-motel community where he finds only the slightest hint of warmth, and the dime store psychologizing of the rehab sessions more or less unfold in a schematic fashion befitting a first-time screenplay.
LaBeouf’s own self-analysis is too obvious to reveal much self-reflection. “I’m a grown man with an inferiority complex!” Hedges blurts out early on. Fortunately, while these scenes come and go, the earlier moments provides a compelling foundation for exploring LaBeouf’s legitimate challenges, and push back on the perception of a total vanity project. Much of that has to do with the accomplished filmmaker behind the camera: Ha’rel’s visual style came to fruition in the lyrical documentaries “Bombay Beach” and “True Love” (produced by LaBeouf), both of which intermingle non-fiction with staged moments that make her well-suited for the high-concept cinematic autobiography in play here.
At its best, “Honey Boy” provides lovely snapshots of small moments from Otis’ youth, set to Alex Somers’ evocative score. Otis drifts from the bright lights of various sets to the drab interiors of a grimy hotel room, trapped between two hostile worlds and searching for stability in both. As the movie wanders from its character’s quest for catharsis, it manages to provoke genuine pathos for the internal nature of that battle.
Still, “Honey Boy” demands an acknowledgement of the bigger picture surrounding each scene. When adult Otis bursts into his therapist’s office to deliver some loud epiphany, he’s asked, “Are you being sincere or mocking me?” and shoots back “Both.” After many years of public reckoning with his persona, it’s nice to have that one settled, but it opens the door without peering into it.
Because the movie’s existence is predicated on a celebrity, “Honey Boy” is notable for the widely known details it leaves off the table. There’s nothing of the racial epithets LaBeouf delivered on-camera to police officers after getting arrested in New Orleans. Nothing about his inebriated outbursts at a Broadway show. And no insight into his bizarre decision to direct a 2011 short film that was plagiarized from a comic book, a revelation that led LaBeouf to hire a plane to paint the words “I’m sorry” in the air above Los Angeles. Instead, by fixating on his father, “Honey Boy” settles for bleak recap of growing up in tough circumstances. On those terms, it mostly holds together. However, its appeal is intrinsically linked to the unique conditions of LaBeouf’s career, and these excisions feel like a missed opportunity.
No matter these shortcomings, “Honey Boy” remains a fascinating cultural object and essential viewing for anyone obsessed with the actor’s bizarre ups and downs. As a narrative testament to his side of the story, the movie exists on a continuum alongside LaBeouf’s other self-referential work, including the hilarious #ALLMYMOVIES (when he consumed his entire filmography publicly, in a New York theater, over the course of several days), and his disturbing public exhibition #IAMSORRY (which invited anyone willing to wait in line the opportunity to sit across the table from LaBeouf as he wore a paper bag over his head). And of course there was that time he walked the red carpet with a mask that read “I am not famous anymore.”
While those gimmicks were destined to obfuscate LaBeouf’s problems and annoy his audiences, “Honey Boy” offers an olive branch. It’s best appreciated less as movie than cinematic confessional, a quest for catharsis in the only substantial medium within his grasp. To that end, even as “Honey Boy” settles into the tropes of a familiar coming-of-age saga, it’s an admirable variation — the earnest attempt by an elusive movie star to bring his mythology down to Earth.
“Honey Boy” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.