Any child star who’s narrowly escaped the spotlight and matured into a stable adult will likely tell you fame is the worst double-edged sword imaginable. Fans, coworkers and studio execs will be forever enamored by the work you put in. But then one must consider the mild toxicity often holding one back from growing and learning. Whether it be someone looking from afar, or the overbearing helicopter parent standing off-screen. In the case of Otis Lort, his dagger is a dad who’s struggling on his own merits for a better life. Perhaps to the point where his bitterness makes him come off as a raw, abusive jerk. Such is the plight of Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy, a film that’s more highbrow performance art than legitimate screen drama. It’s nothing less than what we’ve come to expect out of Shia LaBeouf’s mind, save for the fact that it’s soberingly truthful. Its most effective quality, I’ll admit.
The tale is slightly exaggerated but delicately fleshed-out. A spot of charisma and flair where LaBeouf reconnects and makes peace with a fractured past. Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea) portrays the grown-up Otis, the manifestation of many a bad decision and acting role. We first see him dodging explosions from an alien invasion. His stardom ultimately turns against him as he’s thrown into rehab after flipping over his car and bad-mouthing his arresting officers. Forced to rehash those cases of unbridled trauma, we flashback ten years prior to the clean-cut 90s, to Otis as a youngster (Noah Jupe). A fresh face on a family-friendly sitcom (not unlike Even Stevens), he’s thrilled to have a chance to shine. Unlike his grizzled dad James (played by LaBeouf) whose chances seem less clear as an ex-con, former rodeo clown, a master of the odd job as if it were an art.
Otis keeps a brave face for the cameras, doing his best for himself and his father who hold on by the skin of their teeth in a small hovel in a trailer park in the valley. Dad’s paid to chauffeur him about, son learns from dad to pocket craft service snacks and the like. They rely on each other like a parent and child would in each situation, and yet their relationship couldn’t be more strained, as all the pressure’s on Otis to maintain a regular salary. They’ll run lines, they’ll show admiration, but then James’s mind wanders into a state of pure bitterness and envy, taking it out on the kid both psychologically and physically.
Never extreme, completely realistic with an ounce of restraint, LaBeouf and Jupe are a tragic pair, uplifting each other but unafraid to let out their emotions between each other. The two are impossibly electrifying, for uniquely different reasons. Otis is comfortable in his own ways, perhaps overly so; LaBeouf channels that resent, that lack of forgiveness, in the hope of seeking closure. First-time narrative director Har’el, whose cinematic verse has been tested in documentary form aids to keep the navigation focused and straightforward, as young Otis never loses that determination. The captive pluck by which he aims to turn his father right, make him a figure greater than he can ever be.
It’s only Har’el who’s confident enough to take LaBeouf’s manner of storytelling beyond the niche self-centeredness of his past foibles. Past where years of cynicism can drive a man to, where being with unfamiliar people and substances can poorly influence our judgment. Har’el is offering the chance to allow LaBeouf to mature as a performer and a storyteller, perhaps analogous to the cold denial his father gave. One can only hope it’s the start of a positive upward swing, their third collaboration after a pair of compelling short-form pieces.
And while Shia succeeds in his own category, Hedges and Jupe respectively flourish by manifesting the good and bad of his fictional persona’s psyche. While stuck in the trap of therapy, Hedges is rather underused. But when we see him, he’s a wild ball of charisma, now reduced to a jaded reflection of his former A-lister self. A disgraced human continually asking why he’s been placed in this minor isolative space, contemplating on his cyclical duality of purpose and recklessness. Something his therapist (Laura San Giacomo) and some of the facility staff hope to extract and identify.
Then there’s young Otis, the more innocent of the two, at least on the first encounter. 13-year-old Jupe, his position as a performer with plenty of room to build in fair standing after turns in A Quiet Place and Ford v. Ferrari, delivers one of the more emotionally driven acting performances this year. Those moments shared with Dad, brief as they are, pack most of the wallops. After the fleeting physical lashes, the emotional scars run deeper. Har’el puts much trust into Jupe to truly carry the film with every beat, every tense exchange, even those involving others. Like his mother who’s otherwise completely out of the picture. And the quirky Shy Girl (a wonderful FKA Twigs), next-door neighbor and a trick-turner whom Otis reluctantly confides in with a clueless aire.
There can be no further contradiction of LaBeouf’s dexterity in luring an audience into something that delves deep into the above-average. The way he sees healing, he sees a story that blurs the line between fact and fiction, though not necessarily science-fiction. Nevertheless, Har’el keeps her first major narrative feature very grounded on its self-enforced merit of personal growth. Most notably how many of us could survive a turbulent childhood and be better off having told the tale. That almost never happens.
LaBeouf perhaps has the most to have gained from the experience of crafting Honey Boy, the title appropriately coined from his childhood nickname. As he dons the guise of his broken shell of a father, right down to the most subtle of mannerisms, he gains heightened clarity, becoming ever closer to achieving a complete state of satisfaction and catharsis. It’s a poignant, familiar tale being given a freshly analytical, if not also microscopic gaze. A story built not so much upon the rise and fall of stardom, as it is on the hidden aspects we either gain or lose in our journey. Upon relationships both healthy and otherwise barely hanging on. Relationships we either strengthen or destroy with age. And relationships that aid in the desire to be a more responsible person, whether by choice. With enough time passed, we’re bound to make the right enough choice. One that can indeed help us go beyond performing good people, and instead just being. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Honey Boy opens in Seattle (Pacific Place) and Bellevue (Lincoln Square) this weekend, additional theaters in coming weeks; rated R for pervasive language, some sexual material, and drug use; 98 minutes.