From starting out as the star of the Disney Channel’s popular sitcom, Even Stevens, to more recent forays into the world of performance art, Shia LaBeouf likes to keep us on our toes. Perhaps he’s even better known for his off-screen antics and meme-generating ability nowadays than he is for acting, with the notable exception of his excellent performance in Andrea Arnold’s 2016 drama American Honey.
When it was announced last year that LaBeouf was to write a screenplay based on his own experiences as a child star – and that he would be playing the role of his own father in said film – the general feeling among film fans was one of bewilderment. Still, with a stellar line-up of young talent including Noah Jupe (who stole the show in 2017’s Suburbicon) and indie darling Lucas Hedges, and Alma Har’el in the director’s chair, Honey Boy has a lot going for it beyond the initial pitch. The resulting film is a sad, surprising, frequently touching and incredibly personal insight into LaBeouf’s accelerated youth.
Shifting between 1995 and 2005, the role of Otis Lort is shared by Jupe and Hedges, who play Otis at 12 and 22 respectively. Following a DUI charge in 2005, Otis is ordered to attend rehab, and encouraged by his probation officer to get in touch with his memories in order to begin the process of recovery.
The hazy, dreamlike quality of Natasha Braier’s cinematography shows the swirling, semi-unreliable nature of memory, as we centre on child star Otis living with his eccentric father James (LaBeouf, who looks a lot like David Foster Wallace for some reason) in a rowdy housing complex, the relationship between them defined by its highs and lows. James is an alcoholic struggling with sobriety, and Otis is frequently forced to shoulder more responsibility than he can handle, developing a friendship with his older neighbour Little Q (FKA Twigs) and taking up smoking as coping mechanisms.
At times it’s difficult to believe that Jupe is only 13, because he plays Otis with such a delicate balance of world-weariness and wide-eyed naivety. Ten years in the future, Hedges is a whirlwind of anger and pain, somehow more infantile than Otis in his 12-year-old iteration, implying a sort of regression brought on by being forced to grow up so fast.
LaBeouf pulls no punches in portraying his father as a deeply flawed man, but there’s a tenderness there too – he has an easy chemistry with Jupe which makes them believable as warring father and son, but LaBeouf seems careful to illustrate that his father’s humanity. James Lort isn’t a monster, he’s just a terrible father. This feels like an important distinction to make, because the film feels like LaBeouf making peace with that. It’s a public exploration of very private trauma, and works because of the nuanced performances, as well as LaBeouf’s frankness in his script.