‘Honey Boy’: a beautiful act of self-healing

To say Shia LaBeouf has been all over the place in the past decade-and-a-half would be an understatement. But it would be a mistake to just dismiss him as a meme or a “troubled child actor”. 

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His performances in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey solidified for me his being one of my favorite actors to watch. He has remarkable range and a fantastic sense of how to keep characters grounded. That staying grounded is exactly what was required of him for this project, a very personal one entitled Honey Boy. 

Alma Har’el directs from a script by LaBeouf, centered on his relationship with his abusive father. It’s easy to forget that LaBeouf was a Disney kid, and his father was in part responsible for pushing him in that direction. LaBeouf senior was at one point — after he had wasted a lot of his life with drugs and alcohol — paid by his son as his chauffeur, and the film mainly centers on this period of time. 

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Noah Jupe plays young Otis, a stand-in for Shia. Shia plays his own father. The scenes between the two of them are incredibly dynamic, and they showcase Har’el and LaBeouf’s ability to make the hair-trigger turns the father takes convincing and earned, in terms of letting us into his mindset, as much as it’s possible to comprehend. Lucas Hedges (in his best performance yet) plays present-day Otis, who after a drunken car crash is in rehab dealing with the effects of his father’s abuse. His flashbacks tell most of the story. 

The three actors are all outstanding, but Shia LaBeouf here is nothing short of groundbreaking. I have never seen anything quite like it. It’s a brave, layered, often scary performance; one where you often forget how omnipresent the actor is as a cultural character because he has completely sunk into the character he’s playing. Because the performance itself is so astounding, the fact that it is so intensely personal fades away and becomes like a cherry on top of an already brilliant achievement.

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Visually, the film has an aesthetic of eternal twilight. The faded greens and browns glow together in a dreamlike trance, reinforcing the idea that this memory may be heightened by years of regret and anger. 

But for as angry as Honey Boy can get, it’s also quite gentle for a film of its type. Forgiveness comes slowly for Otis, but it does come, and it’s beyond cathartic when it does. What I love about that section of the film is that it’s not about anything his father does or doesn’t do. It’s about Otis learning that he is the most important character in his story. As James (LaBeouf) says at one point, everyone has someone that’s done them wrong. Shia has downplayed how the film could potentially help its viewers deal with such issues, but I think he and Har’el have made something much more universal than he realizes. Honey Boy and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would make a wonderfully therapeutic double feature.

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-George Napper

‘Honey Boy’ is now playing everywhere in the US

1hr34min; Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual material and drug use

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