On one hand, Honey Boy is simply a film following the complex relationship between a child actor and his abusive, monetarily dependent father, however, anyone with even a slight amount of knowledge regarding writer and star Shia LaBeouf’s tumultuous career and very public ‘private life’ will know that Honey Boy is so much more.
While the names have been changed, for all intents and purposes, this is LaBeouf’s auto-biopic which he penned himself while in rehab. The film follows the once child actor, Otis Lort, in court-ordered rehab as he is forced to confront memories of his traumatic childhood. In particular, the years in which he lived in a tiny motel room with his father who acted as his on-set chaperone and projected all of his own failed dreams onto his acting-prodigy son.
The crux and main draw of the film, however, is that LaBeouf stars not as himself but as the filmic equivalent of his own abusive father; the army veteran, ex-rodeo clown, and addict, James Lort. While this sounds as if it could have very easily descended into something almost vindictive or awash with self-pity, Israeli-American director Alma Har’el and LaBeouf pull it off with the latter giving a nuanced performance. There is no argument against the fact that Lort is a severely troubled individual and father, though the script avoids attempting to wholly villainize him or reduce his character to a two-dimensional antagonist. Similarly, while there is no attempt to wash him of responsibility, LaBeouf fleshes out his character enough for you to start to understand him, just as he seems to be attempting to understand and grapple with his own idea of his father. Whether this was therapeutic or doubly traumatic is hard to tell as the actor immerses himself so thoroughly in the role.
Opposite James Lort is his twelve-year-old son Otis, brought to life beautifully by Noah Jupe with alternating heartbreaking innocence and a hardness incongruent with his age. It is this pair at the center that truly sell the film. They have a wonderful chemistry and the film plays to this strength, having much of its runtime consisting of tightly written, revealing conversations between the two.
Not quite as much space to breathe is given to the narrative of Otis’s present, relying on more clichéd scenes of rehab; trust exercises and stilted therapy sessions. However, the choice to mix dream and reality in this current day story redeems some of this latter timeline as it aligns the audience with Otis’s growing sense of disorientation and alienation. Lucas Hedges as the older Otis also gives a solid performance with some notably cathartic moments.
While LaBeouf’s name will always be the one most strongly associated with bringing Honey Boy to life, Har’el’s assured direction is equally essential to the film’s success. The melancholy, dreamlike tone that permeates the film beside confident pacing and editing makes this an impressive fictional feature debut.
A raw exploration of trauma and the ugly complexities of familial relationships; while not easy to watch, Honey Boy is harder to forget.
Shia LaBeouf was arrested for public intoxication in July of 2017 in Savannah, Georgia. He was ordered to attend a 10-week rehab program, where he discovered that he had PTSD and began writing the screenplay for Honey Boy.