In a sea of reboots and superhero hits, it can be hard to find new releases that are emotionally resonant. This is one of the many reasons why I am thankful for Honey Boy, a film that grapples with trauma and the importance of our formative years. The film is based on Shia LaBeouf’s upbringing as a child actor and his rocky relationship with his father at this time. It’s about exhaustion and misplaced anger. It’s about toxic masculinity and the lengths we go to preserve our tainted memories. But at its core, it’s about coming home.
Honey Boy Director Alma Har’el is best known for her documentary Bombay Beach which earned her high praise at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011. It was this work that caught the attention of Shia LaBeouf, who wrote to her in admiration and later produced her documentary LoveTrue. After years of developing a working relationship, it seemed only fitting for Har’el to handle telling a story as intricate and evocative as LaBeouf’s. The two partnered on Honey Boy, with LaBeouf writing and Har’el directing. This iconic duo is accompanied by an equally noteworthy cast comprised of Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, Byron Bowers, Martin Starr, and FKA Twigs.
Writing an autobiographical script is no easy feat and doing so requires an immense amount of introspection. If anything, Honey Boy is a true testament to emotional growth. Shia LaBeouf may have several accolades under his belt but it’s hard to imagine any of them being as urgent or transformative as Honey Boy. And Har’el unpacks the film’s central themes beautifully in her direction. It’s a visual marvel, comprised of stunning camerawork that underscores the narrative of pain and growth. She is clearly going nowhere but up, and I’m beyond thrilled for whatever she directs next.
Honey Boy opens with a 22-year-old Otis (Hedges), who is visibly overworked and spends his time off indulging in drugs. This sequence is short and stroboscopic and ends with him drunkenly getting into a car wreck. We are then quickly jolted back to 1995, where we see a 12 year old Otis (Jupe) in a similar hectic routine, working every day on a set that feels very reminiscent of Disney’s Even Stevens. He takes a pie to the face for a scene and this one-shot is perfectly representative of everything that is to come. The choice to start the film in this way is bold. And it is here that LaBeouf’s intentions as a writer are clear. Honey Boy leaves no room for ego or self-pity. He owns up to his past and does not aim to justify his choices; rather, LaBeouf offers us a look into his upbringing and how exactly he fell into substance abuse.
Set in the late-night remnants of movie sets and the searing glow of motel signs, Har’el and LaBeouf create an atmosphere that is distinctly personal. These settings are often romanticized in cinema, but Honey Boy portrays them in an honest and vulnerable light. They become home to loneliness and isolation and, in turn, force us to reexamine our preconceptions of Hollywood, an industry whose production process is glamorized to no end. Honey Boy also has an overarching theme of nostos – the idea of returning home after a long journey. Otis’ spiritual reunification with his father is what allowed him to move forward and reflect on the vacancies he knew to be his home.
The performances in this film are otherworldly. Shia LaBeouf took on the emotionally taxing role of playing his father. It is his personal stake in the story that lends itself so well to praise. It’s difficult to imagine how someone in the process of healing could revisit these agonizing moments with so much to offer. LaBeouf brings his all to the role, channeling the abusive nature of his own father into bursts of anger and discontent alongside compulsively aiming to better his son’s acting. His performance was so visceral that more often than not, you feel like you are Otis, not that you are simply watching him. This revelatory feeling is brought forth especially through Jupe, who is undoubtedly Oscar-bound with his work on this film. The fourteen-year-old actor brings an unparalleled level of strength and innocence to the role that will pull the rug out from under the audience.
Another performance that deserves high commendation is that of Hedges. Hedges is becoming a coming-of-age household name with prominent roles in films like Lady Bird, Boy Erased, Mid90s, and Manchester By The Sea. His work is often nuanced but commanding and Honey Boy is no exception. He plays Otis with such emotional vigor, nailing bouts of frustration and pain while also delivering moments of care. He also perfected LaBeouf’s voice, as is evident even in the trailer. Interestingly, at this time, it looks as though all three leading actors in this film could be contenders this awards season.
Honey Boy is a diamond amidst coal and a necessary moment in contemporary cinema. You will laugh, cry, and feel every emotion worth feeling. Alma Har’el and Shia LaBeouf have created a work that is equal parts poignant and compelling that I’m sure many will revisit in times of need. For comfort, for catharsis, for compassion, Honey Boy is perfect, in every sense of the word.