“Honey Boy”: Film Review | Sundance 2019

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Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Starring as a complex version of his own father, Shia LaBeouf shares an egoless retelling of his own childhood in a screenplay written during rehab, inviting audiences to witness the trauma that shaped him and explains his troubled past.

When news hit that Shia LaBeouf had written a screenplay during his time in rehab about his troubled childhood in which he would eventually play his own abusive father, it sounded like another Shia meta-stunt. I mean few actors have generated the same level of curiosity and confusion that has surrounded LaBeouf, although it’s minimally impacted his movie career. His arrests for public intoxication and his various performance art (remember his stunt when he silently faced off with his own fans at an L.A. art installation… and live-streamed his reactions as he watched his entire filmography in reverse?) have never downgraded the quality of risk and substance in his filmography.

Now with Honey Boy, his screenplay debut, LaBeouf has scripted a rambling and sensitive yet sincere autobiographical portrait of a child actor’s dysfunctional upbringing and the eventual devastating fallout. It is not at all a self-justifying cri de couer or a prank exercise for his narcissism. Enlisting Israeli-American music video and documentarian Alma Har’el, the film whizzes between the past and the present, proceeding in impressionistic glimpses and glances and offers a window into one of the world’s most intriguing and interesting actors. It serves as a vulnerable yet honest act of therapy for him (the screenplay being conceived as a rehab exercise for him to describe his emotions and feelings).

Har’el casts one of the best young actors of the time, Lucas Hedges, as the early-20s LaBeouf – named Otis Lort – and interweaves actual scenes of the star in rehab throughout the film although she primarily focuses on the period in which 12-year-old Otis (A Quiet Place‘s Noah Jupe) and his father, James (played by LaBeouf himself) stayed in a sleazy motel where the former finds the slightest hints of warmth and companionships from an older neighborhood girl (FKA Twigs in her acting debut). We witness James shepherding Otis around sets, shouting at the crew in true bullying-stage-parent fashion… but James saves most of his venom for Otis, subjecting him to constant torrent of mistreatment – haranguing him while he memorizes lines, berating him for a variety of perceived slights, taunting him about his penis size, and, at one point, beating him. The list goes on.

Fortunately, LaBeouf is the kind of actor who can turn a type into a flesh-and-blood human. He is a performer whose main gift has always been intensity that feels visceral rather than studied. LaBeouf makes his father character a train-wreck of self-loathing, insecurity and neediness; yet he also shows us the suffering behind the man’s meanness, as well as a twisted tenderness. When James talks to Otis, the threats and terms of endearment come so fast and in such close proximity that it’s hard to tell which is which; you understand why the kid aches for his father’s love even as he loathes and fears him. Jupe’s portrayal of 12-year-old Otis is both sensitive and innocent, crushing your heart while at the same time mending it while you see the inner workings of LaBeouf’s psyche start to make sense.

The cuts in the film are quick and the camera is always on the move. Har’el and her DP Natasha Braier and editors Monica Salazar and Dominic Laperriere are all working in harmony to create the fast-paced sequences that Har’el is known for in her music videos and documentarian work. Througout, there is a warmth and radiance to Har’el’s style here – a deeply felt sense of place and an eye for poignant details and flashes of grace that alleviate plenty of the harshness. The music elevates the film even further creating moments that mesmerize audibly combined with dazzling visuals of lights and the bleak sets of a poorer Los Angeles.

Would Honey Boy exert the same power if it wasn’t based on Shia LaBeouf’s life? Definitely not and that’s an undeniable part of its fascination. The entire audience during both screenings I watched were entirely quiet, gasping at the right times and moved in the many sequences that are emotionally powerful. After a few years of LaBeouf’s public persona almost eclipsing his talent, it’s nice to be reminded just how vital that talent of his is.

JAKKAWI: A

“Honey Boy” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Category. At press time, Amazon acquired the distribution rights to the film for a late Summer/Fall season premiere just in time for awards season.

Image from Film Companion; Shia LaBeouf as his father James.

Director: Alma Ha’rel.
Screenwriter: Shia LaBeouf.
Music by: Alex Somers.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Production: Automatik, Delirio Films, Stay Gold Features, Kindred Spirit, Red Crown Productions.
Distributor: Amazon.
With: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs, Martin Starr, Laura San Giacomo, Clifton Collins Jr., Byron Bowers.

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