I only realized that “Honey Boy” is an autobiographical story of Shia LaBeouf’s own troubled childhood and chaotic famed life after I walked out of the theater. It is a habit of mine to refrain from reading reviews before seeing a film. LaBeouf wrote the screenplay for “Honey Boy” while in rehab and played the character that is based on his own abusive father. When I learned the backstory I was deeply struck by his sheer vulnerability and sincerity.
Premiering Jan. 25 at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, “Honey Boy” alternates between 2005 and 1995 to tell the story of the complicated relationship between Otis Lort and his ex-felon father. The young Otis, played by the 13-year-old Noah Jupe, is working toward his dream of becoming a movie star by running between different sets. His career is managed by his dad, a former rodeo clown, who would otherwise be unemployed. Lucas Hedges plays the role of the older Otis, who is also running between film sets and profiting off his willingness to get blown up, tied up or beaten in action movies as a stunt double. After a blurry night of drinking, hooking up and an incidence involving a flipped car and some shattered glass, he is told that he has PTSD and has to check into rehab. But what caused it? Surely, it can’t be those fake traumatic movie scenes he was in.
“Honey Boy” is a film of humanity’s subtle, ambivalent, dark, hopeful, ugly, beautiful emotions. Therefore, it has to be a film of details. LaBeouf’s character swears in virtually every single line and action: His rash mannerisms while pulling out a beach chair, his wet eyes while confessing his remorse for mistreating Otis at a combat-veteran meeting. Every small gesture. All the perfect timing. Before knowing the autobiographical nature of the script, I was sitting there thinking, “Shia LaBeouf is perfect for this role.” Now I know that he has poured his heart out into the screenplay and I can only guess what he was thinking when he was acting (or re-enacting) those scenes.
And the young and talented Jupe. The film could not be this moving without his in-depth understanding and impeccable portrayal of Otis — from his yearning and nervous gaze at LaBeouf, his silent obedience to do anything that LaBeouf orders and his childish smile while sitting between LaBeouf’s laps on the curb and smoking his cigarette. Jupe’s innocence and gentleness complements LaBeouf’s fiery temper well. The father and son are like two hedgehogs, eager to get close to one another but extremely afraid of getting hurt and hurting the other. This paradox of human relationships would resonate with a broad range of audiences, even though some might not have personally experienced a problematic father.
But what initially drew me to “Honey Boy” was neither LaBeouf nor Jupe, but the director Alma Har’el. I became a big fan of hers after watching her renowned documentary “Bombay Beach” in a film class last year. I was curious to see what her fiction would look like and she did not disappoint me. She brought her signature dreamy brushes to paint “Honey Boy” with vivid, emotionally charged colors. The clearness and blueness of the swimming pool, as well as the brightness and softness of the sunset, are all reminiscent of “Bombay Beach.” In one scene, after being slapped in the face by his dad, Otis pretends to play baseball with the girl next door, who also appears to be suffering. The two seem half-acting and half-dancing. All their motions are slowed down in silence. In the purplish blue night, the camera caresses and kisses the two broken souls.
Har’el has that ability to turn pain into poetry and to remind us that shadows always lead to the light. Her direction enhances LaBeouf’s story to another level and gives it a bittersweet aftertaste that leaves the audience savouring after they walk out of the theater.
At Sundance, I could hear journalists and critics talking about “Honey Boy” everywhere — on the bus, in the press line and at restaurants. Everyone was asking each other, “Have you seen ‘Honey Boy’ yet?” And almost everyone who did said that they really liked it. With its great cast, intimate story and under-explored theme of father-and-son dynamics, “Honey Boy” has the potential to become a film that everyone would hold dear to their hearts in 2019. Shia LaBeouf may have written the movie selfishly, to help himself cope with his inner demons, but I still want to applaud his inspiring courage and rare, raw vulnerability that proves cinema has the power to expose and heal.