In watching Alma Har’el’s feature debut Honey Boy, we get three versions of Shia LaBeouf. Most literally, he stars in the film as James Lort, a recovering addict attempting to raise a child actor. But traces of the actor exist in the lead character, Otis, who we follow at age 12 (Noah Jupe) and 22 (Lucas Hedges). Written by LaBeouf himself, Honey Boy soothes childhood wounds through a brilliant autobiographical format. Har’el, Hedges, and Jupe are support beams in a story that is holistically LaBeouf’s.
If you enjoyed watching the ragtag group of kids in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, you’ll find the same kind of thing in Honey Boy — minus all the heartwarming bits about friendship. Otis and his father live in a hotel outside of Los Angeles, which seems to serve as a kind of purgatory for the 12-year-old star. He passes time in the pool — this is not all that different than the older version we see, who participates in water group therapy. They pass time in the water. Time is fluid. Throughout Honey Boy, we pass between 1995 and 2005 as if the distance was nothing. Otis is the same. After all these years underwater, his wounds have never washed away.
Honey Boy is a film with a great deal of oscillation. The story moves between the two periods in Otis’s life, the mark of his father’s abuse transgressing from literal scars to a lingering PTSD. There are exquisite details that tie the older Otis to his younger self. He’s always struggling out of harnesses. He’s always practising his juggling. These are kinder marks left by his father. The other oscillation we see in Honey Boy is Otis’s flow between performance and self. The first sequence, which includes the daily routine by Hedges, is a muddled mix of his existence on-set and in real life. Right off the bat, Har’el establishes a conflicted relationship between Otis and the real world.
The soundscape of Honey Boy — which is hard to label exactly, it could be considered a score, perhaps added music, and sometimes just instrumental noises — adds to the fluidity. Life’s pretty confusing, and tracing childhood trauma is full of tangled memories. The combination of Har’el’s directing and LaBeouf’s writing never really tries to undo the tangles in Otis’s life, instead presenting everything as a series of hurt. Even through therapies and outpatient care, the older Otis is still left treading in the water. Maybe there’s a bit of group therapy in the mere act of watching the LaBeouf’s soliloquy, hidden in the smooth pool waters and faraway bells in the score.
The performers of Honey Boy outshine every other aspect of the movie. Though most of his time is spent brooding, the ever-fantastic Lucas Hedges expands on his range with meditative works. Honey Boy is the second release for artist FKA Twigs, and though it may be the second-best of her releases this weekend, her acting debut is promising. But it’s Jupe and LaBeouf who truly carry Honey Boy: their conflicting chemistry introduces so much colourful pain to the film. Jupe, who has starred previously in A Quiet Place, delivers a portrait of troubled youth through his premature nicotine addiction and middle-man conversations with his parents via the telephone. LaBeouf’s performance is indescribably great — even if the film was poorly-made (which it is not) it would be worth seeing for his angered-mumbling alone.
While Honey Boy may be a well-crafted meditation on the troubled life-and-times of the actor, it’s a bit more peaceful than one might expect — especially from the opening scene, which includes a violent car crash and arrest. Even though LaBeouf’s performance stings, it’s not enough to make the film a masterpiece. The 93-minute run-time flies by, but Honey Boy never soars. It’s smooth, like honey. But with such a provoking subject, it’s surprising that it just never bites.
Honey Boy is out in cinemas in the US now and in the UK December 6th
by Fletcher Peters
Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, and Instagram.