Cinema can be a form of emotional therapy for many, with certain films helping people work through a tough point in their lives, or bring some sense of escape from reality for a couple of hours. But I feel like we rarely look at the filmmakers, who I assume work through many emotions and hardships in the creation of their art. And that aspect of filmmaking has never been more apparent to me than it was as I watched Honey Boy, Shia LaBeouf’s semi-autobiographical story about an alcoholic father and his child actor son, which sees the actor digging deep into his soul to tell this immensely personal story.
Delicately directed by Alma Har’el, Honey Boy stars Noah Jupe as Otis, a young boy making his way into the entertainment industry as a child actor. Otis lives with his father, James, played by Shia LaBeouf, whose alcoholism frequently gets in the way of him being a good role model and parent for his son. We also see Lucas Hedges as a grown-up Otis, going through rehab and coming to terms with his tumultuous upbringing.
LaBeouf wrote this script while in rehab, and while he noted in a post-screening Q&A that a few characters and events are amalgamations and not strictly aligned to his real-life story, an emotional truth and honesty pierces through every scene. A few surreal moments are peppered in throughout, but most of the film gives us a fly-on-the-wall look at this story. Alma Har’el utilizes a free-flowing, restrained directorial approach, allowing scenes time to breathe (sometimes a little too long, which I’ll get to later) and letting the strong acting and writing come to the fore. Not an ounce of pretension underlies any of this, the entire enterprise feeling like a cinematic form of personal therapy.
Along with baring all in his script, LaBeouf plays his father in what I can only imagine is the most challenging role of his career. To immerse himself so fully into the role of someone who had such an overwhelming impact on his life undoubtedly deserves to be commended. What is more impressive is the level of humanity LaBeouf brings to such a self-destructive force of nature, showing us the pain and torment within an often despicable man, one who loves his son and simultaneously has no idea how to show it. It is a fearless and vulnerable performance.
In Noah Jupe, we see the personal anguish and desperate need for a fatherly figure in Otis’s life. One particular moment finds Otis figuring out how to confront James about how he should be treating him. Simple and devastating in execution, the scene also works because Noah sells every second of it. Hedges uncannily resembles LaBeouf in his mannerisms, way of speaking, and to an extent, his appearance. We also have a bit of comedic relief in some of Hedges’ scenes in rehab, nicely juxtaposing the heavy nature of the overall subject matter. And yet, we still feel the turmoil within Otis (and the influence of James) in Hedges’ performance.
Structurally, Honey Boy can feel a little wobbly, especially in its opening scenes. The film often resembles a stream of consciousness instead of a straight-up narrative, which is mostly effective. Still, some scenes last much longer than the point of the scenes require and end up feeling a little redundant, especially when compared to briefer moments (like the scene I mentioned in the last paragraph) that have just as much, if not more, emotional charge.
As an overall film, Honey Boy can seem like a familiar coming-of-age drama on its surface, with a sometimes unbalanced structure that can feel repetitive. But as a personal artistic expression of one’s own life, directed with nonjudgmental grace by a promising new voice in narrative storytelling, it is as brutally honest and unpretentious as they come. Seeing Shia come out on stage after the standing ovation, moved to tears, I can only imagine the level of catharsis he must’ve felt in that moment. I hope he got everything he was looking for out of this experience, just as I hope you all go see this beautiful film when it gets released.