In “Honey Boy,” Otis Lort (Noah Jupe, “A Quiet Place”) is a precocious child with two jobs: an actor and then, off set, a caretaker for his father James (Shia LaBeouf). Otis is 12. James, a former professional clown and recovering heroin addict, is an adult.
In the hands of others, it would be impossible to reserve judgement of this father-son dynamic. And yet for 92 minutes, director Alma Har’el (“Bombay Beach”), working from a script from LaBeouf, exhibits restraint. Consequently, we must as well.
Unfurling like a familial stage play, “Honey Boy” is about as semi-autobiographical as films get. This is LaBeouf’s life, through and through. It toggles between Otis at 12 and at 22 (now played by Lucas Hedges), where he’s entered a court-ordered rehab center. The inciting incident for Otis mirrors LaBeouf’s public drunken arrest from 2017. Art and life has rarely been so entwined as it is here. It’s impossible to disassociate LaBeouf from Otis, and Otis from LaBeouf. Nor does he seem to want us to disconnect the two.
While initially resistant, Otis starts writing down his past. This exercise is both therapeutic and painful. Each sentence he produces triggers another memory, and into that memory the film plunges. Camped out at a garden-court motel home, Otis and his father tussle and tumble through their unbalanced relationship. As a child-star actor, Otis’ success enables him to employ his father as a chaperone. His mother, heard only by phone, is still reeling from her traumatic divorce from James.
At their relationship’s healthiest, James offers his son life lessons about performing — what does and doesn’t work comedically on stage. In fact, “Honey Boy” shines especially bright when the script focuses on Otis and his father. These interactions often verge on violence, but James’ yelling matches are a masquerade for the deep-seated insecurities around his failings as a father. He wants to participate in his son’s success but fears that same participation may undo Otis’ ascension.
While James is away at AA meetings, Otis strikes up a relationship with his neighbor, Shy Girl (singer FKA Twigs). Otis and this woman are immediately drawn to one another, despite their age difference. They’re kindred spirits. This unorthodox interlude is a goldmine for Har’el and her DP, Natasha Braier (“The Neon Demon”), with the lighting and blocking taking a turn as these two characters grow closer. There’s a mythical, experimental quality to these moments. Cinematographically they exist, together, on a different astral plane. That is, until they have to return back to earth.
Ultimately, heartbreak rules everything around “Honey Boy.” I don’t know if Har’el, a documentarian making her fiction debut, could tell LaBeouf’s story any other way. There’s a specificity to the proceedings, unfurling like a film written by someone who’s spent three decades trying better to understand his father and, in turn, himself. LaBeouf’s recreation is nothing short of miraculous. It’s a cinematic reconciliation, as LaBeouf grapples with a childhood he can’t escape. The impossibility of erasure is perhaps what forced him to write it down, but the film feels less like a confessional and more like an exorcism.
Har’el’s direction is assured and unpretentious. Her work in documentary film translates, as she unobtrusively captures the people of “Honey Boy.” The emotional space she gives Jupe, LaBeouf, and Hedges shows. Each actor has his moment to transfix the audience, and each seizes it. The sheer rawness of their performances is a testament to Har’el’s ability to create an environment where that’s even possible. To tell someone else’s life story — especially when it’s being told with such brutal honesty — is impressive. To do so with with warmth, intellect, and vulnerability is a Herculean feat.
“Honey Boy” struck an immediate chord, but as the days passed, it lingered. It keeps you coming back to certain images: an eager-to-please child and his wayward father, an adult Otis trying to put back together the fractured pieces of his life. A distillation of suffering. What’s most hypnotizing is the film’s internal uncertainty. Otis and James are still in a period of adjustment that may very well never end. They are people, and by definition, emotionally unresolved, complicated and messy. This makes watching them rise and fall and then fall again all the more agonizing. In some ways, they are multifarious reflections of ourselves.
I think most movies like to generate clear-cut solutions for their characters. Such films, often crafted to be internationally digestible products, sell us these harmonious mythologies. that any problem can be solved, any pain erased. For a while, I believe LaBeouf participated in stories like these. Stories about picturesque families with “eccentric” siblings and teen angst. Stories told with a smile, however feigned, that promised to return after a brief commercial break. And so here he is as a man reemerging from the kind of personal strife most of us have the great benefit of reconciling, quietly, in private. For him these transgressions (however egregious and problematic you may find them) have been part of the public domain since before he could legally smoke a cigarette.
“Honey Boy” is not an act of justification. It does not rationalize his decisions. But it is a reminder that LaBeouf is here, and unafraid of what’s to come.