“The only thing my father gave me that was of any value was pain. And now you want to take that away from me.”
This line, spoken by the troubled young actor Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) in a therapy session in a rehab center, captures the ache at the core of Honey Boy. The project is directed, with great sensitivity and poise, by Israeli filmmaker Alma Har’el, but is the personal exorcism of its screenwriter and co-star, Shia LaBeouf. The child star turned bankable Hollywood lead has endured a checkered career, too often making headlines for the wrong reasons: disorderly conduct, swearing at police officers, drug and alcohol abuse, a PTSD diagnosis, a brief marriage ending in divorce.
Key to LaBeouf’s penance — a signpost on his road to Damascus — has been the making of this bracing autofiction centering on the relationship with his abusive father, and the negative appetites and traits carried through generations.
Honey Boy opens as a hectic music video, an anarchic and cursory montage of showbiz decadence in which Hedges’ Otis, now an established enfant terrible in the mid-2000s, partakes in cocaine, in loose women, and in combinations thereof leading to a car crash and, inexorably, to rehab. Whether conceived by Har’el or LaBeouf, it’s the right strategy: Dispense with the real-life cliché of his character’s Hollywood collapse, let us fill in the missing gaps, and only slow down to explore the emotional wreckage in its wake.
Prodded by his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) to revisit the roots of the post-traumatic stress disorder that fed his self-destructive behavior, Otis remembers a definitive period in 1995, and for the rest of this too-brief picture, Har’el oscillates between the two settings.
Then a 12-year-old actor in a comedy series, Otis (Noah Jupe) lived, during the shoot, in a rundown motel that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the paradise-lostness of The Florida Project. His chaperone is his deadbeat dad James (LaBeouf), a self-described “s–t father” technically on the payroll of his talented son.
James is many things, none of them positive or constructive: an alcoholic, a domestic abuser, a sex offender, a convicted felon. A former rodeo clown who developed an act with a chicken — the animal takes on greater significance in both of the film’s settings — he’s the sort of person who talks constantly and says nothing.
It’s something of a pièce de resistance for LaBeouf, whose transformation is marked. Sporting a godforsaken mullet and an occasional do-rag, his gut bulging under tasteless T-shirts, and his delivery of even benign lines laced with bitterness and passive-aggression, it’s a full 180 from his excellent work as the flawed but fit and likeable dreamer in The Peanut Butter Falcon earlier this year.
James shares with his son a flair for performance and an addictive streak, and the movie lucidly illustrates Otis’ downward spiral from the vanishing innocence of his childhood to the numbing escapism of his early 20s, with the freedoms and opportunities of celebrity serving as his handmaidens along the way.
The script is seasoned with hard truths that you know were delivered by LaBeouf himself at one point or another, and Honey Boy is likely to touch thousands of viewers who will identify with Otis’s struggle. But Har’el’s greatest accomplishment lies in shaping LaBeouf’s therapeutic screenplay into a lyrical feature that transcends memoir. She directs her three co-leads to dig deep until they reach bottom, then allows them to come up for air.
The movie’s 95 minutes disappear in a flash, culminating in a sequence of mysticism that almost chafes against the verisimilitude that preceded it. More so than a change in tone, it’s the abruptness that leaves the viewer wanting more. It feels like there’s a reel missing.
But the earnestness that is the hallmark of Honey Boy remains pure, all the way to the nakedly sweet Bob Dylan selection that plays over the end credits: “All I really want to do-oooo … is baby, be friends with you.” If only it were that easy.
HONEY BOY. Director: Alma Har’el; Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs, Laura San Giacomo; Distributor: Amazon Studios; Rating: R; Opens Wednesday at Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, and AMC Sunset Place in South Miami