LFF 2019: Honey Boy Review
When an actor or director creates a work which is semi-biographical, that they also then star in, there is always a risk that the end result will end up being self serving - a sort of therapy for the star, but little in the way of a meaningful dialogue. Then there are films like Honey Boy, a stunning and sobering example of how to successfully interrogate one’s own life and create a nuanced film out of the trauma.
Shia LaBeouf has always been somewhat of a talking point with his history of outlandish behaviour. From the ‘just do it’ video, to his live-streamed movie marathon of his own films - he has been a deeply private and outwardly public person at the same time. Beginning his acting career at just 10 years old, LaBeouf’s trajectory has not always been straight forward.
Honey Boy, written by LaBeouf and directed by his friend and creative partner Alma Har’el, is a complex exploration of the price of fame on a young person, a difficult father/son relationship and the trauma of growing up too soon. Semi auto-biographical (though by most accounts, the story mirrors LaBeouf’s childhood very closely as he wrote the script as part of his rehabilitation process), Noah Jupe plays young actor Otis, just in the early stages of a promising comedy career.
Otis lives in a motel with his father, James (played by LaBeouf) - a run down joint with little to enjoy for a child. By day, Otis is on set at a nearby studio filming a family sitcom (almost certainly a reference to Even Stevens), whilst his father flirts with studio execs, grows marujana by the freeway or forgets about Otis altogether. Their relationship is strained - James is an ex-alcoholic and drug addict who is trying to get his life together, but his best efforts don’t always end well for Otis who, more often than not, is in the firing line of James’ rage and anxieties. The dissection of modern masculinity in James’ inability to provide - relying on his son for income - is upsetting, yet important and the film handles this subject with an expert hand.
This glimpse into the lives of Otis and James is actually embedded within the larger story of the film - one where adult Otis (a phenomenal Lucas Hedges) is admitted to rehab on a last chance attempt to get sober or else face prison time. Hedges gives an incredibly engaging performance as a man who is so confused, frustrated and angry - but has nowhere to put these feelings. His slow journey, punctured by elongated flashbacks of his childhood, feels genuine. Jupe, as the younger Otis, is similarly riveting - the two are uncannily . similar in their behaviours and within the minutiae of their actions. Jupe also manages to hold his own in some of the more traumatic scenes with LaBeouf, driving the relationship forward.
Director Har’el weaves these two narratives (old and young Otis) together through waking dreams and recurring symbols (chickens play a big part in this film). The very first scenes set the tone for the rest of the film - Hedges as Otis and then Jupe as Otis are on rigged wires filming action sequences - one involving an airplane crash, one involving a custard pie. The similarities between the scenes, and Otis’ consistent inability to remove his own safety harness, is a powerful symbol of the ropes holding him back and the consistent physical performance he is undertaking.
At first, watching LaBeouf play his own father feels like an exercise in empathy - one can’t help but wonder how difficult it was for LaBeouf to constructively handle the project. Yet, as the film progresses, LaBeouf seamlessly blends into the character of James until it’s all but forgotten who is playing this character. The irony of course is that James frequently lauds Otis for not moving past slapstick comedy to more serious roles - LaBeouf clearly shows here that he is incredibly capable of complicated character parts, and this project might just be the most glorious type of personal exorcism.
Honey Boy is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival.