It wasn’t too long ago that Shia LaBeouf was out in the streets of L.A, showcasing outrageous art pieces, as well as making headlines for troubled behaviour. With his personal and professional life in a tailspin, it seemed like Shia had gone off the deep end, with no end in sight. The funny teen actor who was made famous by the Disney Channel, and gone on to lead one of the biggest action-franchises ever produced, had become more known for tabloid-behaviour, and puzzling style choices (see: I’M NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE). His off-screen antics began to outshine his performances in film. But, with Honey Boy, LaBeouf aims to reclaim the creative spirit he once had.
A deeply personal and emotionally-moving piece of cinema, Honey Boy is a self-portrait that acts as a cathartic experience for LaBeouf. Throughout the tightly-packed 93 minute runtime, LaBeouf is clearly trying to make sense of his upbringing, and how that led to where he currently is in life. In Honey Boy, LaBeouf asks the viewer to see the world through his lens, giving them an inside look into his broken childhood. Adjacent to that is LaBeouf himself looking through the lens of the man who raised him, his father. Honey Boy is a semi-autobiographical piece, with Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges playing Otis (based on Shia), and Shia taking on the role of Otis’ father James (based on Shia’s on father).
The film intercuts between Lucas Hedges’ Otis (at the height of his film career) dealing with a stint in rehab in 2005, and Noah Jupe’s Otis, who is still living with his father, in 1995, dramatizing the time in LaBeouf’s life when he was working almost exclusively with Disney. During this time, LaBeouf remembers his father as a damaged figure, one who is continuously ridiculing his son, as well as inflicting physical violence. While there are moments where James does show some kind of affection towards Otis, the sad reality is that he was never truly able to emotionally, or physically show that he loved him. Yet, even through all that, LaBeouf portrays James as someone that can be, in a sense, saved. Through all the heartache and pain, LaBeouf still holds love for his father, which adds yet another complex layer to the already multifaceted story.
There’s a visceral sense of bravery to Honey Boy; whereas young Otis is LaBeouf justifying the pain he went through, present Otis is LaBeouf trying to reconcile with his own demons. LaBeouf has not shied away from talking about his fair share of controversy, but with Lucas Hedges’ version of Otis, he wrestles with the fact that he was on a dark path for a number of years; one that could have ended his life, causing him the same pain felt by his father, all those years ago. With each moving sequence, you will be both mesmerized and unnerved by what you see on screen. Every emotion felt by Otis as he exorcizes his inner demons will be felt by the audience, with LaBeouf’s writing engulfing you with hope, powerlessness, fear, and a growing sense of redemption.
In the hands of any other director, a film like this would have been swept under the rug, and probably never even see the light of day. Behind the camera for Honey Boy is Alma Har’el, making her fictional feature film debut. Myself, and Managing Editor Artur Galvao, were lucky enough to attend the TIFF Gala Premiere for the film, in which Har’el, with the cast in tow, appeared to discuss the story, and how the film was made. Har’el said that this film was for all children growing up with alcoholic parents, revealing that she was raised by an alcoholic father. This is an acutely delicate narrative, and Har’el weaves in her own pain to the authentic portrayal of familial abuse. After hearing her speak on the matter, Har’el is clearly also trying to resolve her past, bringing graceful compassion to the drama.
There is such a claustrophobic feel to the story, bringing the viewer right to the forefront of the drama in Otis/Shia’s life. Har’el, and cinematographer Natasha Braier, frame the film as if there is no escape from these circumstances. The camera hangs tight on a young Otis, as he breaks down crying after getting into a violent scuffle with his father. Cutting back to the older Otis, rehab, like his childhood, feels never-ending, and like there is no exit door. Otis is locked in like the chickens he cares for. But, as the film progresses, the older Otis begins to finally grapple with his pain, as Braier slowly moves the camera back, allowing for some breathing room for both the characters and the audience.
What drives this film, more than anything, is its lead performances. Shia LaBeouf shines in a career-defining performance as James. With every line of dialogue, James becomes more and more of an emotional gut-punch; with every glimmer of light in his volatile relationship with his son, it always comes crashing down with an insult or punch thrown. At times, it becomes incredibly difficult to watch, comparable to the downward spiral of a drug-addicted Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) from 2018’s Beautiful Boy. We see a man, struggling with every aspect of his life, taking the pain and suffering out on his own child, while still being haunted with each passing day. LaBeouf nails every mannerism, outburst, shortcoming, and sense of appreciation, as he completely vanishes into the role inspired by his own father.
Both Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe portray Otis with nuance and poignancy. After starring in A Quiet Place and Wonder, Jupe takes his acting to an entirely other level here, being able to carry entire sequences without any dialogue. There is a lingering sense of dread and desperation in the younger Otis, always being careful when talking, while also yearning for the approval from his father. Jupe’s melancholy weaves in seamlessly with Hedges’ older, more unhinged Otis. Brash arrogance and refusal to confront the past define Otis in 2005, and Hedges plays the role superbly. All he has ever felt is pain, something he now holds on to, as it is the only thing in his life that is real. Hedges paints a heartbreaking look at a man who longs for something more, yet is consistently pushed into the path his father was on. A character with deep personality flaws, Hedges’ Otis never becomes unlikeable, and always earns your sympathy.
Truth be told, I had quite a bit of trouble writing this review. Honey Boy struck so many chords within me, that it became almost impossible at one point to put down all my thoughts about this story. A film which chronicles troubled souls and confronting our own inner demons, Honey Boy is a cathartic, heartbreaking feature that never shies away from the harsh realities of familial abuse, and the complexities that it comes with. A therapeutic journey, Honey Boy features terrifically resilient performances, stunning visuals, incredible direction from Alma Har’el, and a beautiful musical score from Alex Somers. LaBeouf has held onto the rage and sadness for so long, and now, with Honey Boy, he is able to finally start a period of healing, leaving the audience’s perception of the actor changed for years to come.
Rating – 9/10
Honey Boy hits theatres on November 8, 2019