If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded an Oscar for bravery, Shia LaBeouf’s autobiographical work in Honey Boy would be a shoo-in.
While the celebrity-adverse and folks who’ve grown tired of the prodigal actor’s off-screen shenanigans over the past decade might rather shame him for egotistical excess and crafting a film that’s essentially a 90-minute public therapy session, the payoffs that arise via exorcising his demons are plentiful for game viewers — and, hopefully, the screenwriter/co-star/subject himself.
Opening in exciting, tongue-in-cheek fashion with LaBeouf’s fictional surrogate, Otis (Lucas Hedges), enduring grueling stunt work on a 2007, Transformers-like action flick, Honey Boy follows him to court-mandated rehab, then flashes back 12 years in an attempt to figure out how he got to this low point.
The introduction of preteen Otis (Noah Jupe, Ford v Ferrari) in a similar but far cruder stunt setup on a Hollywood lot wordlessly suggests that little has fundamentally changed in the intervening stretch. The film soon loops in a figure who’s key to providing answers as to why: Otis’ father, James, played by none other than LaBeouf.
A former clown with a daredevil pet chicken sidekick, a schtick that never resulted in the fame he so desperately desired, James revels in the allure of vicarious stardom while accompanying his son on set. Tragically funny, LaBeouf channels the pain of a failure’s second chance at success with an authenticity that can only come from witnessing it firsthand — a complex, wounded pride compounded by the fact that James is only there as Otis’ paid employee, and a somewhat reluctant hire on the boy’s part at that.
Each shared scene between father and son is enthralling, frequently heartbreaking, and forms the core of LaBeouf’s raw exploration of his past as he steps into the shoes of the man who most shaped him and, in many ways, doomed him to a path of addiction and hardships.
Witnessing LaBeouf juggle socks with Jupe in their characters’ not-quite-temporary hotel room under the threat of pushups if one is dropped, there’s a fascinating yet painful sense that LaBeouf not only lived through that exact moment but worked with his talented young co-star over and over to get the exchange exactly right.
Honey Boy is packed with similar hyperpersonal scenes that are bolstered by the strong rapport between LaBeouf and Jupe, and the lengths to which James will go to protect his ego — be it an argument with his ex-wife (Natasha Lyonne) with Otis serving as go-between, or a tense cookout by the pool with Otis’ Big Brother mentor Tom (Clifton Collins Jr.), whose arguably necessary presence in the boy’s life is so hilariously damning that it has to be based in fact.
Meanwhile, Otis’ quasi-romantic mothering by a teen prostitute (FKA Twigs) who lives at the motel further highlights the extent to which he’s not living the life of an average boy, as do his professional activities. For viewers aware of LaBeouf’s Disney Channel past, there’s also bonus intrigue in discerning what’s lifted directly from his breakthrough series “Even Stevens” and other child roles, and what’s been tweaked to make them fictional.
LaBeouf’s first feature-length screenplay offers well-thought-out movement between the past and present and how one informs (or perhaps haunts) the other. Due to the 1995-set scenes’ wildly personal and experimental nature, the 2007-set stretches can’t help but be less engaging by comparison, but they still yield plentiful laughs and, as Otis comes to terms with his history, a few nicely earned heartfelt moments.
All the more impressive is that Honey Boy is the narrative directorial debut of documentarian and music-video helmer Alma Har’el. Her confident guidance of this special material and gifted ensemble is evident throughout and turns what could have been a messy trip down memory lane into a truly great film.
Now playing at Grail Moviehouse