Honey Boy, the winner of the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, starts off with a literal bang: a young man getting blown backwards by an explosion. The smoke clears to reveal he’s an actor on a movie set, tethered to a rope, dangling above smoldering wreckage. His name is Otis, and he’s the star of the production. A subsequent montage blurs the line between Otis’s chaotic screen life and his equally chaotic personal life, culminating with more wreckage, a byproduct of his drunken driving. Wreckage is at the heart of Honey Boy.
Under arrest, Otis delivers a drunken rant in the back of a police car about how talented he is. Instead of prison, he goes to rehab, grudgingly working through various personal growth exercises. When a therapist asks him to write an account of his memories, he fixates on a period of his life when he was a twelve-year-old child actor left under the care of his maladjusted father, James. Otis’s past and present interleave through flashbacks as he explores the roots of his pain, anger and self-destructiveness.
Shia LaBeouf, who wrote the script for Honey Boy, is no stranger to self-destructiveness. Since 2008, the actor has been arrested a number of times for DUIs, disorderly conduct and misdemeanor assault. Honey Boy’s genesis was LaBeouf’s court ordered rehab in a mental health facility following his public intoxication arrest during production of his previous film, The Peanut Butter Falcon. He used the actual transcripts from his therapy as a starting point, creating the character of Otis as his proxy. For directing, he turned to his friend and former collaborator, Alma Har’el. It was her suggestion to cast LaBeouf as James, the stand-in for his own father, in order to create, as she put it, “one of the most ultimate exercises of empathy that one can achieve.”
James is an ex-felon struggling with addiction and anger management. He’s virtually unemployable, so his twelve-year-old son hires him as his chauffeur. Embezzlement seems likely; even though they live in the cheapest of motel rooms, James rides a new Harley. On the other hand, he’s young Otis’s biggest fan, praising his acting skills, feigning jealousy over his celebrity, and generally behaving like a not completely irredeemable big brother. His portrayal is a sensitive and compassionate balancing act achieved through LaBeouf’s scriptwriting and his increasingly formidable acting skills.
Oscar-nominated Lucas Hedges, as the adult Otis, perfectly captures the body language and vocalizations of LaBeouf, no doubt aided by the numerous YouTube videos of LaBeouf behaving badly. Noah Jupe, currently starring as Christian Bale’s son in Ford v Ferrari, plays the childhood Otis. As talented as they both are, it’s LaBeouf’s performance as their father that leaves an indelible impression, and he deserves credit for humanizing the man who emotionally and physically abused him in real life.
After cutting his teeth on sitcoms, making millions of dollars off of the brain-dead Transformers franchise, then devolving into bad boy notoriety, it’s heartening to see LaBeouf becoming one of the best indie actors working today. Honey Boy might be LaBeouf’s ultra-personal autobiographical attempt at self-repair, but it also succeeds as a brutally honest and thoughtful reflection on a formative love-hate relationship.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.