Honey Boy by Shia LaBeouf is a searingly personal, self-immolating childhood memoir.
Manchildby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Visceral adult actor and former child star of the Disney Channel’s Even Stevens Shia LaBeouf wrote the script for Honey Boy as therapy while in rehab for substance abuse and drunken behaviour that resulted in a drink driving conviction. He has described the process of turning it into a movie as “freeing”.
Shia’s surrogate in Honey Boy is 12-year-old Otis (stunning Noah Jupe in a phenomenal performance). Like Shia he is a child actor in a family sitcom: we first see him getting a custard pie in the face. The film focuses on the period when he and his father lived in a seedy motel, despite his regular wage as an actor, where his only sympathetic friend was a kind teenage prostitute (FKA Twiggs).
His obnoxious father James (played by Shia himself) is also his guardian and chaperone on set. James is an unemployable ex-veteran, ex-offender, former rodeo clown with a scruffy mullet, a beer gut and a huge complex that makes him seethe with resentment that his son pays his wages. As a result, he’s merciless in his destructive criticisms of Otis, whilst coaching him on set, making him smoke and drink, and insisting he learns to juggle.
Otis is self-contained and stoic in the face of his father’s dysfunction. In many ways, he’s the adult in a relationship that he somehow manages to live through, despite the lack of parental support. He feels compelled to cover up for his father’s failures to care for him and his father’s physical attacks on his adult mentor Tom. There’s a gut-wrenching scene where Otis is the intermediary on a telephone call between his father and his absent mother, who won’t speak to each other.
The film is told in a circular way, flashing back and forth between adult Otis (Lucas Hedges), an action movie star recovering in rehab, and young Otis navigating his way through prematurely adult complications. It works well: it reveals why the adult turned out as he did.
Directed by documentary maker Alma Har’el, Honey Boy (Shia’s father’s pet name for him) is an extraordinarily revealing, sincere and sensitive film: at times it’s almost too personal. It’s brave – if that’s the right word – of Shia to play his father, and he creates the character so well that it’s clear that Shia has been studying his father all his life. It’s not a malicious portrait: despite the suffering he caused, it’s full of compassion. Maybe Honey Boy was cathartic enough for Shia to forgive his father for the car crash of a life he created for him.
Honey Boy screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 6 December 2019 in the UK.