Honey Boy is like witnessing an exorcism no one asked for and the demon is Shia LaBeouf’s dad. The actor, having long since burned out his many chances due to extended bad behavior including an arrest that included spouting racial slurs, has some atoning to do. But the film is less about asking forgiveness than it is laying bare all that has ailed him, including a history of addiction that has afflicted his father and family beyond. Instead of empty signs of promising change or offering excuses in order to alleviate, Honey Boy aims for healing.
The film, the narrative debut of director Alma Har’el, recounts LaBeouf’s acting childhood and his later breakdown, turning the actor (now screenwriter) into a barely veiled version of himself named Otis – played alternately in age by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges. But the film also remains with one foot in the door of attention-grabbing theatrics that have defined LaBeouf’s very public healing process. Here he plays his father James Lort, a former Vietnam veteran, sexual felon, and clown performer.
The twelve-year-old Otis lives with James in a dingy motel paid for by Otis’ acting gigs, with their lives mostly defined by James’ volatility and demands on Otis’ performance style. Otis’ burden is one of endured jealousies, verbal cruelties, and exposure beyond his years, all spurned from James’ troubles. Juxtaposing a decline back to drug use for James as the older Otis begins a rehabilitation program, Honey Boy explores how to proceed towards healing when self-hatred and pain has defined you.
Much of what makes Honey Boy feel more of an exercise than intentional narrative is its stunted structure. While Har’el charts an emotionally intuitive and graceful “fiction” debut, there is a hindrance in LaBeouf’s screenplay struggling to find a narrative trajectory that satisfies storytelling demands and the life as lived. Once the film abruptly comes to its conclusion, it rightly approximates a denied catharsis like that of addiction recovery, but also shoves abstract sentimentality for the sake of closure. You can’t necessarily blame LaBeouf for wanting to have it both ways, but a lack of denouement does ultimately clip Honey Boy’s (and Har’el’s) flight.
There is also a certain degree of authenticity that comes from such shagginess. LaBeouf’s intensity as his father grounds much of the film, but his scenes with Jupe have an improvisational naturalism that captivates. Har’el roams meaningfully throughout the film with notes of whimsy and aching poeticism, mining deeper towards the soul this father son dynamic. Her eye is intimate and almost protective of her characters, gilded with an attention to emotional truth. Jupe’s performance is especially powerful, losing the light in his eyes before us with delicate pathos opposite the thunder of LaBeouf.
Honey Boy is more in the telling of its personal wounds than what it unfolds or how it resolves. However it remains a film worth good-faith estimations, if one that struggles to compose itself beyond the creative purge of its concept. After marinating in hardships, the film takes easy routes out, pivoting to something more pat, as if it finally had to shield its eyes from a life lived so raw. But the soul at the core is all crushed embers – the film’s defining characteristic is its compassion, made all the more special by how hard won it is earned.