After a series of personal setbacks, Shia LaBeouf has experienced a small renaissance lately with stellar performances in such films as The Peanut Butter Falcon, Borg Vs. McEnroe, and American Honey, proving his worth as one of the more exciting actors working. Now, with Honey Boy, he digs deep to not only to show off his acting chops, but to also impress as a first time screenwriter.
A script which literally originated from notes LaBeouf kept from his time in rehab, the film follows two timelines from his life, early childhood when he starred on the Disney show Even Stevens, and young adulthood when he starred in the Transformers blockbusters. A life spent mostly living with his unstable father seems like the fodder for dozens of indies. What could easily have come across as a self-indulgent autobiographical look at his own life gets elevated by fantastic performances, a perceptive intercutting of the timelines, and direction so deft and intuitive, I felt so much for these characters.
The film’s first image, a gorgeous single take, focuses on Lucas Hedges, who plays a version of LaBeouf as Otis at 22. He stands in front of a burning fuselage and stares straight into the camera. Suddenly an explosion rocks him back through the air towards the fiery plane. He screams, “No! No! No!”. Someone yells, “Cut” and we see various crew members tend to the harness and ropes affixed to the actor. Otis goes back to his first position for a retake. It’s an artfully clever way to introduce a character on edge, sucking us into his world and knowing we have a wild ride ahead. He’s a troubled young man who ends up in rehab after a car crash. There he’ll meet his match with a psychiatrist, Dr. Moreno (Laura San Giacomo), who seems to know all the tricks a guy like Otis could play on her. She wants him to really face his demons. Hedges, who has established himself as the go-to actor for onscreen meltdowns, really captures our perceptions of LaBeouf’s arrogance. We’ll soon learn where that came from as the film shifts to his childhood.
Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place, Wonder) plays Otis at age 12. While sweet on his kid’s TV show set, he develops thick skin living with his domineering, non-stop talking, verbally abusive wild card of a father named James. As played by LaBeouf with a thinning mullet, stomach paunch, and wire-rimmed glasses, James has a benevolent hippie vibe but with a strong undercurrent of resentment for having his own child footing the bills and virtually acting as his boss. Their scenes together at the rundown motel they live in reminded me of a gender-reversed version of The Florida Project. LaBeouf feels like an actor uncaged and transformed here, committing so fully to this difficult character and always finding a type of kindness deep inside. Director Alma Har’el, whose prior documentary work experience serves her well, hones in on her characters, making their dynamics feel so real.
Jupe more than holds his own against LaBeouf’s firestorm of a portrayal, delivering us a child who expertly navigates whatever his father hurls his way. One jaw-dropping scene puts Otis right in the middle of a phone fight between his parents, leaving the child to pass along every insult the parents intend for each other. It has an ugliness which we know will have an effect on him, but it also shows what a deft survivor he will become. Through it all, he clearly loves his dad, perhaps because he understands the source of his anger and knows, flaws and all, that he’s doing his best. Without Jupe’s highly skilled portrayal, James would have come across as the typical monster dad.
Many may find the film to be plot-free, and I won’t disagree. It’s a small, emotional journey leading to a freeing of the mind. Think of it as a less abstract version of a Harmony Korine film, where every dramatic situation leads us one step closer to our main character’s self-actualization. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it has way more heart than expected without ever getting too sentimental. In its final scenes, it comes close, especially when Hedges’ Otis tells someone he’s gonna make a movie about his life, but the last couple of shots more than make up for that transgression, visually showing us how we take our parents with us, the good and the bad, wherever we go.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Honey Boy gets a 0 out of 50. Clearly, seedy motels and blow-everything-up movie sets are no place for homos.
By Glenn Gaylord
Honey Boy opens in US theaters on November 8th.