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Honey Boy

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.

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