Twentysomething actor Otis (Lucas Hedges) is doing well professionally, being thrown about on blockbuster sets. Inside, though, he’s burning, self-harming to almost every degree, and winds up in rehab. Meanwhile we meet his 12-year-old younger self (Noah Jupe), a child actor in the grip of his tyrannical father (Shia LaBeouf).
By Alex Godfrey | Posted 2 Dec 2019
06 Dec 2019
Shia LaBeouf has always seemed tinged by mania, on and off the screen. Even when starring in garbage he’s never cut corners, burning up the joint with emotional desperation. There’s a genuine sense of danger about him, his real-life upsets bleeding onto his sets — the self-inflicted knife scars on his face, unscripted and unrequired from his time on David Ayer’s Fury, still show today, but mental scarring is evident too, barely beneath the surface. In Honey Boy, an autobiographical open-wound scripted by LaBeouf in rehab, all of this unravels with a wallop.
The names have been changed, as this isn’t documentary, but to all intents and purposes Lucas Hedges plays LaBeouf, all explosive aggression, indiscriminate anger and self-sabotage. We meet Otis (Hedges) on the set of a big-budget action film (a thinly disguised nod to LaBeouf’s Transformers years), and after a night of hedonism turns ugly he gets arrested, and eventually arrives at a rehabilitation centre. From here we rewind a decade or so to catch up with the 12-year-old Otis (Jupe), a child actor plying a trade in sitcoms, his alcoholic deadbeat dad on his payroll. And this is where the lid comes off this big bowl of WTF, because LaBeouf himself plays his own father, dishing out abuse to his younger self. It’s wild.
It’s hard to recall any other film that does what this does, an actor laying himself bare like this.
To say Honey Boy is one big therapy session is to do it a disservice — it’s much better than that — but it literally is. After getting arrested in July 2017, another all too public humiliation, LaBeouf went to rehab, where he was encouraged — and we see this dramatised in Honey Boy — to write about his feelings and experiences. That resulted in this screenplay, which he sent to his friend Alma Har’el (director of 2011’s musical documentary Bombay Beach), who has crafted LaBeouf’s life story into something poetic and often heartbreaking.
LaBeouf, captivating as ever, is frightening as his own dad, a loose cannon oozing a creeping menace. Jupe is a powerhouse: your heart bleeds for this kid, for both Jupe’s portrayal and for the pre-teen LaBeouf he plays. It’s a devastating performance, phenomenally so for such a young man. Hedges, meanwhile, puts in a furious turn, perfectly embodying years of damage and neglect, while singer FKA Twigs, as a sort of calming guardian angel for the young Otis, has an ethereal and almost otherworldly presence.
Above all, Honey Boy is tragic. LaBeouf even gives his dad a shade of sympathy, presenting him as a cracked, pitiful human being. The film is somewhat slight, running out of steam a little towards the end, but that’s maybe for the best — a tidy resolution would have felt like a betrayal. This isn’t an ending for LaBeouf, but a step forward. Every day counts.
It’s hard to recall any other film that does what this does, an actor laying himself bare like this, in terms of both the script and his own performance as his father — there are levels and levels and levels. With almost every role of his career, LaBeouf has seemed like he’s on fire. To some degree, this fascinating piece of work explains why.