Shia LaBeouf wasn’t exaggerating when he described the making of his latest film as an “exorcism.” Part cathartic therapy session, part sadomasochistic abuse, sitting through Honey Boy is not unlike watching poison be sucked out of a wound. Not doing so is fatal, but there’s always a chance that re-ingesting it could be deadly all on its own.
Directed by Alma Har’el from a script LaBeouf wrote during court-mandated rehab in 2017, the film takes a personal look at the actor’s traumatic childhood, and the lasting impact it has had on his life. How personal? Well, for starters, LaBeouf plays a version of his own dad, Jeffrey LaBeouof, a former rodeo clown and abusive alcoholic who vacillates between supportive and loving to violent with mercurial speed. Meanwhile, A Quiet Place breakout star Noah Jupe and Boy Erased’s Lucas Hedges play the younger and older versions of Otis, a complex character based on LaBeouf himself. And FKA Twigs, whom LaBeouf was rumored to have dated, rounds off the main cast as their next door neighbor, Shy Girl, with whom young Otis develops a tender and platonic relationship with.
With Honey Boy, Har’el and LaBeouf have crafted a story that relies on empathy and reflection. It’s an indictment of toxic masculinity through a woman’s gaze and a hard look at the ways Hollywood fails its child actors. The sensational aspect of having LaBeouf play his own father could easily have distracted from all that, but his performance is so powerful and raw that it’s actually what grounds the unchecked flow of emotions.
The film starts with a literal bang. It’s 2005, and 22-year-old Otis (Hedges) is filming an explosion scene in a movie, which kicks off a montage that skillfully depicts the stress and disconnect felt by someone who’s spent their life on a set. Hedges eerily channels LaBeouf in his arrest scene, based on the actor’s own 2017 arrest for drunk driving in Savannah, Georgia, which led to an altercation with the police, and landed him in rehab. As part of court-mandated therapy, Otis is asked to write down his memories of his father, thought to be at the root of his PTSD diagnosis. (LaBeouf recently thanked the police officer who arrested him, crediting him with “changing his life.”)
This leads us straight into the film’s parallel timeline: 12-year-old Otis (Jupe) is living with his father, James Lort (LaBeouf, in round John Lennon glasses, and a shaggy, balding wig), whom he pays as his on-set guardian. (The scenes we see him filming during this time loosely emulate Even Stevens, the Disney Channel comedy series LaBeouf starred in from 2000 to 2003.) The action toggles between the two Otises, as we see how the emotional wounds inflicted on one continue to haunt and hinder the other.
Jupe displays tremendous vulnerability, his expressive eyes conveying the hurt and desperation for his father’s affection that he doesn’t dare voice out loud. Har’el deploys the sharp contrast between his angelic looks and the vices James encourages him to pursue as strategic gut-punches. A shot of Otis’ face, framed by his soft curls, as he lights up a cigarette in his trailer, is just as heart-wrenching as watching him fend off a blow.
Jupe shines, but this is LaBeouf’s movie. As James, he’s both vicious and insidiously charming, with a chilling charisma that can’t be faked. Four years sober after serving time as a sex offender for an assault he can’t remember (he was black-out drunk), James is both intensely proud and resentful of his more successful son, whom he treats accordingly. Pep talks turn vitriol in a matter of seconds, creating a tense atmosphere both for Otis and the audience. James plays troubling mind games with his son, one moment declaring himself his biggest supporter, while simultaneously putting down his others for not caring enough, causing Otis to feel as though he has no alternative options — a scenario straight out of the abuser’s playbook. And straight out of LaBeouf’s own childhood.
“Think it through,” James berates him in one scene. “What’s your mother got a job for?”
“Just in case,” Otis responds.
“In case what?” he replies, as Otis shakes his head. “In case you fail. In case it doesn’t work out. She fills your head full of fear, I pump you full of strength.”
That kind of sustained psychological abuse is difficult to watch, but Har’el injects levity into even the most harrowing moments. One of my favorite scenes involves Otis acting as an intermediary between James and his mom (voiced by Natasha Lyonne). She tells him something over the phone, and he mimics it back to his father, who responds. As the child of divorced parents, this is something I have experienced myself too many times to count, and it’s both tragic and surreally amusing. But as with anything in Honey Boy, the mood swings sharply when James pushes Otis out of the way and grabs the phone, hurling invectives and insults directly at his ex-wife.
The brutal nature of such story is not as harsh as one would expect due to Honey Boy’s dreamy aesthetic, which offers a welcomed softness. Alex Somers’ lilting score acts almost as a lullaby, cooing Otis through some of his most difficult moments, while Natasha Braier’s cinematography looks like a melting sunset, full of pinks, purples and golden-lit palm trees. Both serve as reminders that there’s deep love in this painful story. It’s probably not the movie you’re expecting. It’s better.