To say Shia LaBeouf has forged an eclectic road to fame would be putting it mildly. A child-star of the Disney approved variety who broke through with relative ease to front-load Hollywood blockbusters, before succumbing to his own off-kilter artistry as something of a performance artist, the actor’s winding road to and from stardom ultimately culminated in the disorderly image of a tortured, abusive soul seemingly wanting out of the very limelight that gave birth to his fame.
It was during a court-ordered stint in rehab that LaBeouf would start penning the words that formed Honey Boy; his anger management and substance abuse issues evidently channeled through his screenplay. Less about him entirely and more a reflection on his relationship with his father – a former rodeo clown prone to violent outbursts with a criminal record – the film’s surrealist vibe catered almost too-perfectly to the star’s friend, director Alma Har’el, a creative whose CV flits between commercial and documentary projects.
In Honey Boy, LaBeouf – in a meta decision that would probably delight his therapist – casts himself as his father, or at least a fictionalised version named James Lort. Under wire-rimmed glasses, a protruding beer-gut and a mullet, the self-loathing imagery of the character could easily have been a caricature had LaBeouf not been so emotionally invested.
LaBeouf’s own persona is embodied within Otis Lort (played as a youngster by Noah Jupe), an assured yet still vulnerable child actor who has had to thicken his own skin and wise-up beyond his years due to the daily adult sparring he has had to endure with his on-the-payroll father; the dialogue between the two crackles with colour and discomfort as the traditional roles of parent and child seemingly switched between a young boy having to grow up too fast and his guardian who never really matured at all.
Sequences between the two – which mainly play out in the run-down motel the two have set up residence in – are intercut with a slightly older Otis (now played by Lucas Hedges, the Lady Bird actor effortlessly adopting LaBeouf’s distinct vocal pattern) who has found himself back in rehab and, under the direction of his patient therapist (Laura San Giacomo), is sorting through his daddy issues with expected rage and uncertainty.
Whilst Honey Boy doesn’t exactly paint LaBeouf’s father in the most flattering light, his script hardly takes on an accusatory tone. LaBeouf portrays him honestly, acknowledging his short-comings as a person and a father (there’s a screaming match between him and his ex-wife that is extremely telling of his abusive behaviour) but there’s an evident delight in highlighting his endearing nature, as well as the fact that he is all too self-aware of his own insecurities.
What easily could have been an insufferable vanity project – especially given LaBeouf’s often enigmatic label – Honey Boy is quite remarkable in its softness, in its emotion, and in the actor’s heartfelt manner in showing his dad the type of love he deserved when he needed it the most.