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Honey Boy

Posted December 2, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

At this point, what’s left to say about Shia LeBeouf?

He got his big break at the age of 14 and he’s been in the public eye for all of the two decades since. He’s made big-budget blockbusters and prestige awards-bait movies (none of which really took off), he’s made kids’ films and borderline X-rated films, he’s embraced his fame and actively rejected it, and everything in between. And as with many of his projects, his career as a whole has been virtually impossible to pin down or define.

But here’s a thought: What if that’s because LaBeouf himself doesn’t even know who he is? You see it all the time with child stars — they spend so many years growing up in the spotlight, taking so many different roles and hustling for so many promos, they don’t really have the time to learn about themselves outside the tabloids and commercials.

So here’s Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el after a respectable career in documentaries and music videos. But screenwriter LaBeouf is the real star here, crafting a semi-autobiographical film that dramatizes his early years and his relationship with his dad. Perhaps not surprisingly, LaBeouf himself plays James Lort, the father character. And fittingly, the movie opens with Lucas Hedges on the set of a paper-thin Transformers parody in 2005, yelling “Nonononono–!” before getting catapulted backwards on a wire.

Hedges plays Otis Lort, an actor with a lifetime of experience on the screen and a crippling alcohol problem. After an especially destructive incident, Otis is sent to rehab, where he has to learn how to make peace with himself and his past. Thus we have our framing device.

Flashback to 1995, when Otis is a preteen played by Noah Jupe. Even at this young age, Otis is a regular on some kid’s show and putting his comedic chops to good use. It’d be a pretty good gig, if only he was under the care of anyone except his father.

James is an army veteran, and it’s heavily implied that he’s got some PTSD to go with his explosive anger management issues. (He’s also a recovering alcoholic.) He’s a former rodeo clown who coaches his son to be a comedian even as he resents Otis’ success. Last but not least, he’s got a felony record that includes at least one sexual assault. Put it all together and you’ve got a man who’s completely unemployable, much less fit to be a parent.

In many ways, the film is about Otis’ lifelong search for a loving and nurturing parent figure, and that’s in large part because James immediately and violently reacted against the notion of anyone else taking an interest in Otis’ development. Is he being overprotective or possessive? Does he want to be the only one responsible for making Otis happy or miserable? Who knows?

It’s not entirely clear where Otis’ mom is in all of this, but it’s perfectly clear she’s not able to help him and this family is hopelessly broken. There’s one especially heartwrenching scene in which James refuses to talk with Otis’ mom over the phone, so James has to relay messages between them while he’s on the headset. It’s actually kind of funny in a pathetic and abusive way.

James is an egomaniacal whirlwind of misdirected energy and contradicting desires. He’s the product of a broken childhood, with nothing better to offer his son. He demands responsibility for anything good that ever happened to Otis, and he doesn’t even want to hear about the bad things.

In summary, he’s a toxic and self-destructive jackass. Yet James and Otis have to stay together because they’re all they’ve got. All of that leads to daddy issues that cripple Otis later on in life, and yet he can’t bring himself to let go of them. As Otis himself observed, that pain is the only thing of any value that his dad ever gave him, so how can he give that up?

If it sounds like I’m being too hard on James, that’s primarily because I can’t portray him with an ounce of the humanity and sympathy that Shia LeBeouf brings to this fictionalized portrayal of his father. Kudos are also due to Noah Jupe, who admirably takes on this leading role with aplomb and dives headlong into some pitch-black territory. And Lucas Hedges? Shit, this is so far into his wheelhouse, he knocks it out of the park and doesn’t even look like he’s trying.

Moving on to the supporting cast, the MVP is indisputably FKA Twigs, here playing an unnamed girl who may or may not be a prostitute. She’s a neighbor to young Otis, and also… well, she’s something more, but damned if I could tell you exactly what.

It’s not quite motherly and not quite sisterly, but something more than friendly. It’s definitely affectionate and highly intimate, but not quite sexual. Otis gives her money, but it seems like more of a formality. Really, the important thing is that the two of them have a deeply personal and emotional connection that both are obviously lacking at home. What’s even more important is that she’s there when James isn’t, so who the hell is he to complain?

There’s one point when Otis says that he loves her. You might think that James was right to scoff at that, but I don’t think Otis was referring to the kind of love James was thinking of. Then again, I don’t think James is mentally or emotionally capable of understanding the kind of love Otis is talking about.

There are some tragically underappreciated talents in the supporting cast and I’m genuinely disappointed they didn’t get more to do. Clifton Collins Jr. makes a welcome appearance, but his character is far more prominent as an offscreen presence and he’s only physically present for one brief scene. Natasha Lyonne lends her voice to one scene as Otis’ mother, and she’s barely even audible. Maika Monroe is supposedly in the cast somewhere — I assume she was the unnamed girl Otis spent that wild night with in the opening before everything went sideways. Blink and you’ll miss her.

The film looks perfectly fine. There are some neat choices in the editing, and a few moments when the two timelines are spliced together in clever little ways. The handheld camerawork is nicely immersive, and there are some powerful shots in extreme close-up. The recurring use of chickens made for a quirky little motif — in context, it’s something ubiquitous and mundane that nobody else but Otis could possibly associate with his father.

Honey Boy packs a lot into its 94-minute runtime. The central Otis/James relationship is so dense with layers and complexities that there’s simply no substitute for watching all of it played out onscreen. Of course a lot of that is due to wonderful performances from Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges, and a career-redefining turn from Shia LaBeouf. Between LaBeouf’s overwhelming passion and intimate knowledge of the subject, and Alma Har’el’s deft touch at keeping everything just heightened enough without going completely off the rails, the two of them put together a damned fine movie.

Definitely check this out if you get a chance.

Queen and Slim

Posted December 2, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

You probably didn’t see The Hate U Give or Blindspotting last year. And that’s a damn shame because the both of them were easily the most powerful, modern, thought-provoking films about institutional racism to come out in the past several years. They both excelled for multiple reasons, but it’s worth noting that the both of them deal heavily with police brutality, with a specific focus on traffic stops gone horribly wrong.

It’s a tragic and deeply uncomfortable truth that too many people of color have been gunned down by police for little reason if any, and the offending cops typically face little in the way of consequence. It’s a horrifying world in which black people can be executed without trial for something as inoffensive as selling loose cigarettes. In the absolute worst-case scenario, a racist — he wouldn’t even need a badge, as George Zimmerman proved! — could straight-up murder a black person for no reason at all and let the lawyers make up some justification after the fact.

Yes, cops are overworked and burned out, dealing with a stressful, complex, and highly important job. They’re doing exceedingly dangerous work and they need a system to protect them. Moreover, it makes perfect sense that cops would stand up for each other, especially when nobody else will. The problem is that the system that keeps good and honest officers safe is the same system that protects violent bullies with no business carrying a badge or a gun.

When cops gun down innocent civilians, and the system protects corrupt officers against the people they’re sworn to protect and serve, what can we do? When people of color are far and away more likely to be arrested or outright killed just for drawing the attention of a police officer, who or what are they supposed to turn to if justice needs serving?

This is where we are, folks. This is where the bar has to be set. This is what racism looks like in America today. This is the system that directly targets people of color, disenfranchising them, enslaving them, and even outright killing them. If a movie is going to try and talk about racism without talking about it in these terms, it’s nothing more than useless pandering.

And I haven’t even gotten to the movie yet. Rent a U-Haul and order some pizza, folks — we’ve got a lot to unpack here.

Queen and Slim tells the story of Angela Johnson and Earnest Hines, respectively played by Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. I don’t recall if they’re ever actually called “Queen” or “Slim” at any point in the story — in fact, I don’t think they’re mentioned by name at all until the last few minutes — but let’s call them Queen and Slim for simplicity’s sake.

Anyway, Queen is a defense attorney whose client just got sentenced to execution. Naturally quite upset, she decides to vent by going on a random Tinder date with Slim. Things are going okay until Slim starts driving Queen home and the both of them are pulled over on some minor technicality.

The transparently racist white cop (played by Sturgill Simpson) escalates a minor swerve to a missed traffic signal, then to a suspected DUI, then goes rooting around looking for illicit substances until he finds some errant comment as an excuse to pull a gun, then comes the excessive force… it’s all exactly as we’ve seen on the news far too many tragic times. In fact, we eventually learn that this same officer previously got acquitted after gunning down a totally different innocent black person in an unrelated incident.

But here’s the twist: Slim doesn’t die. Neither does Queen, in fact. Instead, Slim was lucky enough to get the officer’s gun and shoot him in self-defense, killing him instantly. So now Queen and Slim are both fugitives from the law, forced to run throughout the country without phones or credit cards in search of safe harbor.

Obviously, we’ve got white people who’ve branded our protagonists as hardened bloodthirsty murderers, ditto for law enforcement officers of every stripe at every level of government. But of course we also have people of every color who think that the cop killing was totally justified. Yet the movie doesn’t stop there.

We see people who don’t know or don’t care about the ongoing manhunt, but they’re very interested in saving their own skin and/or getting the bounty. We also see cops of every color who are sick of the corruption in their ranks, and willing to look the other way. We see black people who think that Queen and Slim should’ve kept their heads down and taken their lumps from that cop. On the extreme other end of the spectrum, we’ve got the revolutionaries looking for any excuse to pick a fight with crooked cops, using Queen and Slim as rallying figures.

It’s a matter of escalation. Cops get away with murdering black people, so other racist cops figure they can get away with it too. So what happens when black people get away with murdering cops? And what will the cops do about it when they’re already paranoid and racially prejudiced as it is?

There’s an especially powerful moment involving a black police officer (played by Lucky Johnson) placed in mortal peril, and it’s pretty clear he only wants to do his job and go home. In that moment, he wasn’t really all that different from Queen and Slim themselves: Decent and well-meaning people swept up by circumstance and painted in broad strokes by society at large. In the case of the police officer, he got caught up in the image of law enforcement as this monolithic terror maintaining the white capitalist patriarchal status quo at the point of a gun (ie. “All Cops Are Bastards”). In the case of Queen and Slim, they got caught up in their greater cultural image as folk heroes who fought the unjust law and won to run away from greater injustice. In both cases, there’s an inherent humanity that’s lost.

Tales and iconography are prominent in the film. They give us something to believe in, and something to aspire to. Yet they also do a grave disservice to their subjects by elevating them into something larger than life — flawless and pure as no human ever is. Yet these stories, these pictures of us are all that’s left of us after we’re dead, and so many don’t even get that much.

Lin-Manuel Miranda famously wrote that nobody has any control who lives, who dies, and who tells whose story. This movie goes a step further and asks who — or what — really does get to make those decisions. Is it God, fate, destiny, or something else? Why was it the cop who died that night, and not Queen or Slim? Why do these unassuming and unremarkable people get nationwide infamy and their story told everywhere?

Alas, the same questions could be asked of Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, and too many others. Such are the times we live in.

Yet while the movie is focused on death, there’s a lot of life to this movie as well. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to take detours to show the characters having fun and trying something new together. These scenes don’t really add anything to the plot, yet there’s always an underlying tension by virtue of the fact that they’re on the run and wasting time they don’t have. Then again, when either or both of them could die at any minute, what better time to cut loose and live a little? Hell, it’s almost like an act of defiance, to enjoy life without fear for even a minute while the Powers That Be want them cowering afraid in the shadows. It’s love and laughter that make life worth living, and they ain’t dead yet.

It’s also worth noting that their most reliable sympathizers are black people, and they’re most likely to be spotted on freeways and heavily populated areas. As a direct result, the film works beautifully as a celebration of African-American culture, businesses, and neighborhoods that don’t typically get a lot of love or attention in mainstream media. That said, one unfortunate example includes Queen’s uncle (Earl, played by Bokeem Woodbine), a pimp with his own posse of hookers (the primary ones are played by Indya Moore and Melanie Halfkenny). I’ve certainly seen worse depictions of sex workers, but it still grated me to see legitimate black-owned restaurants and auto shops depicted alongside a pimp who treats his workers as property. (His words, not mine.)

That said, Bokeem Woodbine has charisma to burn, and he’s playing this role for all it’s worth. The same cannot be said for Chloe Sevigny — she’s given so little to do and she’s putting in so little effort, I have to wonder why she showed up at all. I was, however, shocked to learn that her husband was played by Flea — I never would’ve recognized him!

We’ve got all manner of other supporting players stepping in and out of the movie, but of course this show is all about Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya. The both of them are sensational, bringing heavily dynamic performances with sizzling chemistry. I never got tired of watching the both of them work off each other, playing strangers so different that they shouldn’t stand each other — and often don’t — and yet complement each other perfectly.

Kudos are also due to Melina Matsoukas, a prominent music video director who recently made the jump to TV and here makes her feature debut. She crafted a good-looking movie here, with nicely immersive hand-held camerawork and some inspired editing choices. My personal favorite example is the race riot intercut with the sex scene — that was a bold choice and it works surprisingly well. We also get a fair bit of voiceover, delivered in a way that makes more emotional sense than literal sense — I’m sincerely glad that Moonlight primed the pump for that kind of effect.

Queen and Slim is everything you could hope a race-centric movie to be. It’s timely and bold, it’s heartrending and intelligent, it’s angry and incendiary without losing track of hope. It goes to a lot of places precious few other filmmakers would dare, and uses the premise as a springboard to talk about more universal and existential topics.

On top of all that, it’s superbly acted and beautifully shot, with inspired editing choices. This is often a tough film to watch, but definitely not one to miss.