Review: Honey Boy

Emotional pain is an elusive beast. It’s so unlike its physical manifestation, which is much more tangible - you know what hurts, and why it hurts. If you burn yourself, you know it’s because your hand accidentally brushed against the stovetop. If someone hits you, you know your face stings because someone attacked you. If your lungs are screaming for air, you’re likely drowning. But, what happens when you can’t easily identify why you’re in pain? What happens when you’re a child on a film set, literally playing the part of a good son with your fake father telling you he loves you, when your real father hasn’t treated you like he does? How can you quantify the magnitude of that pain, or even fully understand its source, since all your feelings are so jumbled and suppressed that nothing feels as though it makes sense anymore?

Honey Boy is screenwriter Shia LaBeouf’s attempt to explore that issue. He reportedly based the film’s screenplay on his real-life experiences, which casts many of his past projects in an...interesting light. I know I’m never going to watch the amazing Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf the same way again, or use the “JUST DO IT!” meme without feeling weird, which is unfortunate for me, but likely for the better. LaBeouf has had a tumultuous reputation ever since he received hatred for his roles in Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, on top of wearing a paper bag loudly stating “I’m not famous anymore” on the red carpet and conducting other provocative performance art, such as live-streaming himself watching all his movies in reverse chronological order. With Honey Boy, among other projects like The Peanut Butter Falcon and American Honey, it seems LaBeouf is redefining himself as a serious actor and filmmaker, and if Honey Boy is any proof, that was the right choice, because this film is an excellent showcase of talent across the board.

The most striking part of the film is the performance of LaBeouf himself, who disappears into the role of James Lort so naturally it’s terrifying. Everything, from his disheveled outfits and hair, to his quirky vocal mannerisms, to his general demeanor and selfish actions, to his tendency to paint all his conversations with narcissism, are so incredibly cohesive and authentic it’s as if you’re watching a person simply be himself on screen. Though, where LaBeouf becomes undeniably skin-crawling is in how he realistically portrays an abusive parent. In popular media, the abusive parent is typically understood as a one-dimensional and evil monster, but Honey Boy doesn’t pretend this situation is that easy to understand. James Lort is undeniably an awful person - he’s a registered sex offender, a racist, a narssist, and he deals with his insecurities by verbally and physically abusing his son, Otis. But Otis still loves him, and LaBeouf’s performance conveys exactly why Otis still loves such an awful excuse for a father. Despite everything, James teaches Otis how to juggle, cracks jokes with him, builds him a treehouse, tries to impart important life lessons, and dedicates himself (albeit poorly) to taking care of his son.

Needless to say, the relationship is complicated, so complicated that the adult Otis has no idea how to reconcile with it as his life goes on. He’s eventually sent to rehab and is diagnosed with PTSD. This portion of the film is headlined by Lucas Hedges, who is excellent in capturing LaBeouf’s physical (always standing stick-straight with an antagonistic look on his face) and linguistic quirks (their voices sound way, way too similar for comfort). If Shia LaBeouf weren’t in the movie himself, and if Hedges actually looked like LaBeouf, it would be hard for me to differentiate the two. He’s incredibly standoffish, defensive, abrasive, and in denial about his childhood trauma, deriding his therapist during their sessions and believing all the rehab he’s going through is pointless. However, as the film goes on, he begins to put the pieces together via reflection, which is when Noah Jupe as young Otis comes in and truly shines. He has a markedly different personality than old Otis, being much quieter and obedient, but still rather unhappy. Jupe and LaBeouf work wonderfully off each other, thanks to the naturalistic dialogue and delivery - it genuinely feels as though a father and son are speaking to each other, and never once was that naturalistic tone broken.

This is likely because director Alma Ha’rel made documentaries before Honey Boy, which is her feature film debut. While doing research for this review, I found this revelation unsurprising. There are many instances in which Honey Boy is shot and edited like a documentary, as there is an emphasis on handheld cameras and long takes of characters simply talking to each other. It reminded me of the work of Ken Loach, Sean Baker, Andrea Arnold and other directors who make social realist films that emphasize naturalism. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the visuals or music, but that’s the point - the film’s presentation meant to place the viewer into a state in which they feel as though they are observing real people go about their daily lives. Such activities include watching father and son go to the bathroom, young Otis asking his father if he could attend a Dodger’s game, both young and old Otis doing their jobs as an actor, James going to Alcohol Anonymous, and father and son arguing with each other. These all sound boring out of context, but within the film they’re all framed as part of Otis’ struggle to understand his father and thus, his own pain.

If I had to point to some problems, though, it’s that the characters who aren’t Otis or James are severely tropey and underdeveloped. Shy Girl (played by singer FKA twigs) is the embodiment of the classic “sex worker with a heart of gold” who doesn’t get much of a character arc. Percy (Byron Bowers) gets a couple funny lines, but that’s about it, and he disappears from the movie in the second half. I understand that this is primarily James and Otis’ movie, but the fact that neither supporting character was afforded even a basic story was disappointing. I can also see people believing this film is incredibly self-indulgent, as some critics have already declared it is. Like, wow, why does Shia LaBeouf even think we care about his problems enough to watch a whole movie about them? While this isn’t necessarily a wrong way to look at the film, I don’t know what art, or, at least, any good art, isn’t self-indulgent. Art is a means of repackaging and sharing the artist’s experiences and ideas with other people, so artists inherently make their work with the belief that their opinion is valuable. Honey Boy just makes that process more explicit, and I do wonder whether this criticism holds any weight if audiences didn’t know that this film was about Shia LaBeouf’s life.

Though, the most interesting point of contention is that the film feels incomplete, even if that may be a first-watch problem. Once it ended, I remember thinking the film concluded far too quickly, and was desperate to find out what happened next. I’d really grown attached to Otis and company, and the lack of a conclusive ending initially disappointed me as I walked out of the theater. Even so, it struck me that, if this film were truly an autobiographical piece about past pain, how could it be conclusive? Other critics have described this film as “cinematic therapy,” and that is the most apt way to describe it. Therapy doesn’t end once you walk out of a session, nor do the reasons behind your need for therapy. It’s a process that requires a continuous examination of yourself and the people around you, followed by slowly learning how to recognize and cope with your past negative experiences. Honey Boy is simply one example of that process, not its end. Otis - and by extension, Shia LaBeouf - still have a lot of work to do. Giving the film a conclusive ending, then, would defeat the point, but I can picture viewers unfamiliar with the intricacies of therapy leaving unsatisfied.

Ultimately, Honey Boy is an attempt to understand, and come to terms with, one’s pain. It’s miserable to watch at points (as one might have predicted, things between James and Otis can get intense), but it’s refreshingly honest and unpretentious, even with its odd symbolism here and there. I do think you should check it out if you’re interested. Honey Boy is flawed but remarkably human, and made me really care about “Actual Cannibal” Shia LaBeouf.

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