Honey Boy (2019)
Written by Shia LaBeouf
Directed by Alma Har’el
Filmmaking as therapy is a common theme in autobiographical movies. Just recently, I reviewed Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, which served as an outlet for the director to talk about aging and his physical ailments. Actor Shia LaBeouf similarly uses film as confession & therapy, though more intimate and raw than Almodovar. LaBeouf, if you don’t know, was a child actor on the Disney Channel before he reached higher levels of fame in Michael Bay’s Transformers films. The film jumps between these two periods, fictionalizing or obscuring the details, so it’s not about LaBeouf specifically.
Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) is a movie star who has descended into alcoholism despite the fame & money. He’s court-ordered to attend rehab and cannot leave until the therapists say Otis is ready. During his stay, his counselor encourages Otis to write a journal about his life experiences to try and find the root of his addiction. This goes back to when the young man starred on a popular live-action children’s show as the main comedic character. Otis is watched over and managed by his father, James (Shia LaBeouf), who is a recovering addict himself. James has created an unhealthy relationship with his, speaking inappropriately to him and allowing the boy to smoke and putting undue pressure on him.
This is one of the most intimate and meta films to have come out in a long time, featuring LaBeouf playing his father interacting with an actor playing himself. This is not to say that every confrontation between the two is literal; instead, this is an impressionistic take on LaBeouf’s childhood. I have no doubt some of the incidents are real, but we are to understand this is through the lens of memory and emotion, so details can be distorted. LaBeouf ensures that he doesn’t turn this into maudlin therapy for himself and gives plenty of screentime to an empathetic portrayal of James.
There’s an interesting sequence where James is celebrating four years of sobriety with his group and tells the story of his childhood. He had an addict mother who allowed her lover to physically abuse James regularly, which explains a lot about his inability to parent, having had no model. This intercuts with Otis sharing a tender moment with Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), a young woman who lives in the same motel as Otis and his father. The two don’t have sex but are only gentle with each other, falling asleep in each other’s arms. I think this is the sort of love and care Otis was seeking from a parent which he gets from neither.
Another moment finds Otis on the phone with his mother, talking about a Movie of the Week opportunity. The only catch is that filming takes place in Canada, and we learn that James is a registered sex offender. Over the phone, Otis’s mother questions if James will be able to go, and this erupts into an argument. The catch is that Otis is stuck repeating each parents’ words to the other because they refuse to speak directly. The things the young man is expected to say to his parents about each other are so painful and cringe-inducing.
LaBeouf never shies away from the bleakness of his story and doesn’t sugarcoat the ending. His journey to recovery isn’t ending, he’s just begun to understand how he developed these habits and obsessions. Honey Boy will not leave its audience enamored with humanity either, James is an incredibly complicated and easily unlikeable character. But LaBeouf doesn’t believe his father is simply the sum of his flaws, he views him as a troubled man who struggled to love but who allowed his insecurities to take over in the end. I can’t think of a more cathartic viewing experience from 2019 than this one.