Honey Boy (2019)
DIRECTOR: Alma Har’el | RUNTIME: 1H 34MINS | Drama
A autobiographical story written by Shia LaBeouf, it follows a young actors early working days as he starts to reach stardom, and the laters years where he has to face the effects of a tumultuous relationship with his father.
Shia LaBeouf is a fascinating actor to analyse the career of, starting out with a slew of TV shows and TV movies, in the early 2000’s still at a fairly young age hitting it big with films like I, Robot (2004) before reaching the level of stardom in which anybody on the street would know him with Transformers (2007). These aren’t the highest of quality films, and he may not have had the talent to elevate them above this but still kept himself in the limelight. After a series of Transformers and a non-existent fourth Indiana Jones instalment, he started to make smaller films and take part in more creative projects, such as watching all of his filmography whilst live-streaming his reactions. Some people may have been aware what had been going on behind the scenes, but it’s this years autobiographical Honey Boy that sheds a light onto some of the demons he was coping with.
Screenplay by LaBeouf, it originally started as a sort of essay written for therapy after he was put there in 2017 after being diagnosed with PTSD. The film itself plays with the timeline a little, opening on what appears to be something like a Transformers-esque production. Starring down the camera, he looks fairly emotionless before performing a stunt of being blown back by an explosion. They call cut, a clapperboard enters frame and tells us it’s 2005 – this is later repeated when we jump back to 12 year old Otis (as he’s called in the film), a very similarly presented stunt but instead hit by a pie (the still of this acting as much of the promotional material), the clapperboard telling us it’s 1995. It’s a visually interesting and thematically relevant approach that director Alma Har’el plays well, and acts as one of the many small details giving Honey Boy a pretty distinct tone and visual appeal.
Although much of the film is for Shia/Otis to exercise his demons and fix his behavioural and substance abuse issues in the more contemporary time, we spend most of the time with young Otis (Noah Jupe, the elder version by Lucas Hedges) trying to balance his rising career, living in a motel complex surrounded by drugs and prostitutes, and more affectingly the relationship with his father James – played by Shia LaBeouf.
A actor writing a autobiographical screenplay, based on his experiences in therapy, playing his own father in the film which is the source of much of his later issues, could very easily be a self indulgent, pretentious mess, but lucky for us Honey Boy has the strong directorial guidance of Alma Har’el. Mostly known for genre-bending and hypnotic documentaries such as Bombay Beach (2011) and LoveTrue (2016), she also directed a number of music videos, such as 2012’s Fjögur Píanó by Sigur Rós which featued LaBeouf, serving as their first collaboration. Though Honey Boy might not be as experimental as say LoveTrue, it shows Har’el to have a very strong directorial voice, not losing the story in the pretensions of the real life backstory and involvement of the subject himself.
Structurally it flows with ease, jumping between Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as Otis without a jarring switch. Every time something progresses in 2005 with his rehab and therapy, we jump back to 1995 and see the what the cause was, then see the impact on his older self. Even though the runtime is short – clocking in at 93 minutes – there’s a complex exploration of cause and effect ten years apart, the abusive nature of Otis’ father but somehow it does stem from somewhere attempting to be good. We see James wanting to be a good father but unsure how – not justifying the way he treats his son, but almost as a caveat, saying that he isn’t a monster always and that Otis’ blind belief that his father can be and will be better isn’t completely naive.
James does want him to succeed – he was an entertainer himself, but more low brow as a rodeo clown using a trained chicken. There’s a pitiful sadness behind it as the life he’s trying to give Otis, the one of fame and fortune, is the one he wanted himself – there’s a deep jealously behind it, but how can he be so envious of a 12 year old, especially when much of the success is down to James’ involvement? We even see glimpses into the history behind his anger and behaviour, a lot down to his own father too. He’s far from perfect but has some residual goodness in there, we see shines of what Otis hopes he could be.
The film itself isn’t completely flawless, although Har’el keeps it from being a pretentious mess, it does feel like a therapeutic exercise for LaBeouf to explore his issues and find closure which is certainly wonderful and deeply moving in it’s own right, but feels a little too much like he forced a cinematic story into certain parts. It raises a few questions about the authenticity of some parts, which is bound to happen in any story based on actual experiences, but for a film so moving and effecting it does keep from reaching the upper echelon of the best of cinema. That being said, it’ll certainly be in many peoples top lists of the year.