James Clay // Film Critic
TORONTO – Shia LaBeouf’s career is an anomaly. It has gone in so many different directions that you cannot quite pin him down. He has a tumultuous quality to his work that, in recent years, has been fueled by passion and ignited by a string of events that could have been a form of self-sabotage. He’s been in the acting game since the early 2000s with his show EVEN STEVENS when he portrayed a manic little kid who played the foible to his straight-laced family.
This is where his screenwriting debut, HONEY BOY, comes into the picture.
The semi-autobiographical story, directed by documentarian Alma Har’el, works as a therapy session that mirrors LaBeouf’s own career trajectory. But more importantly, it centers on his heartbreaking relationship with his ex-con father, James (played by LaBeouf), who’s worked on set as his chaperone. Alternating between 1995 and 2005, the older version of Otis (Lucas Hedges) tries to relive his childhood in a semi-kush rehab family where’s he’s dealing with issues of rage and alcoholism.
Otis is reminded of cathartic routines by his therapist. But the only thing that calms his mind is writing a screenplay about his upbringing in a tattered notebook. As Otis, Hedges is once again a worthy choice to play the tortured young man with an identity crisis.
Living in close quarters with an authoritarian father is next to impossible for 12-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe, who gives a breakout performance after a turn in A QUIET PLACE and SUBURBICON). Their dynamic is riddled with the trauma of their past. James is straight-up abusive to Otis. He ridicules his masculinity, including the heaviness of his pee stream. All this sticks with Otis well into his adulthood, despite his successful film career.
The father-and-son duo live together in a shanty one-room apartment that’s void of any privacy. That can be intense for anybody, let alone cohabiting with a grown man who’s a convicted sex offender and drug addict. Desperate to connect, little Otis bonds with a fellow apartment dweller (musical artist FKA Twigs in her acting debut), who is listed only as “Shy Girl” on IMDb. She’s much older – and while their relationship flirts with the physical, it’s based on the comfort of closeness.
Har’el’s vision of the film isn’t compromised by LaBeouf providing access to the trauma in his life. She’s acting as the mouthpiece for his (and many other young men who grew up in a similar situation) path forward. We’re finally dawning on an age where art is permitting boys to cry – and to be honest, it feels great. While the star at the center will receive a lot of the credit for this film, it’s Har’el who keeps the story grounded.
HONEY BOY is a film that’s giving men a chance to work through their emotions from the inside out. It’s not about what’s existing on the exterior, but how to examine the egomania on the inside. LaBeouf’s love letter to himself is an extremely raw film. It could very well provide catharsis for many viewers as well.
HONEY BOY screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Encore screenings will be held on September 12 and 13. Visit tiff.net for more information. Amazon Studios will release the film on November 8.