Shia LaBeouf has been acting since the age of 12. He made us laugh in Even Stevens, he was the goofy protagonist in Transformers, and he was the paranoid teen in Disturbia. His career has been full of ups, but also some tragic downs that have often made him the butt of the joke. But now in Honey Boy, directed by Alma Har’el’s and written by LaBeouf, the child actor can set the record straight and offer his quasi-fictionalized side of the story.
It’s 2005 and Otis, played by Lucas Hedges, is an actor who does take after take and parties hard when the cameras turn off. But his partying lands him in rehab again, which means court-mandated therapy. His parole officer tries to get to the source of his anger and instructs him to keep a journal of what triggers his extreme emotions. In this journal, he documents his relationship with his father, James (LaBeouf), who served as a manager when he was a kid. These journal entries serve as a vehicle to flashbacks to a young Otis (Noah Jupe) at age 12, living in a motel with his dad.
James is a smooth-talking, charismatic guy who can charm anyone on set but when they get home, he hammers Otis with too-real truths about his acting, treating a 12-year-old like an adult. He doesn’t care that Otis smokes cigarettes and sees his son as purely a cash cow. But he won’t admit to that, of course, because he is the perfect father, at least from his perspective. Meanwhile, young Otis is struggling to find the support he needs as a kid. He is all alone, raised by cigarettes and an empty motel pool.
This is a story that could easily fall into exploitative spectacle. It could just be shot after shot of abuse, fear, and anger. But, with beautiful camera work by Natasha Braier, the focus is not on the abuse but the emotional effects it has on Otis at age 22 and 12. Close-ups on Otis’ face as he rides on the back of his dad’s motorcycle, eyes closed, and just enjoying the wind rushing past his face shows us a kid who still experiences the world with a sense of wonder. But then a close-up on on his dad shoving his hand that wraps around his dad’s waist tells us all we need to know: Otis wants to feel closer to his dad but is constantly pushed away. These small moments speak volumes about this relationship and paints a heart-breaking picture of a kid who just wants his dad to love him.
Honey Boy is beautiful in both its specificity to LaBeouf’s story and its emotional relatability to anyone who has experienced emotional manipulation and abuse at the hands of a family member. PTSD outside of war experiences is rarely explored in film, so Honey Boy is a breath of fresh air in addressing the very real effects of emotional abuse. As a child, it is so hard to stop loving your parents. No matter how much they yell and scream at you, gaslighting you for any little thing, you still find the good in them; they are your parents after all. Even through the slew of expletives that James spits at Otis, Otis still wants his dad to hold his hand. Kids, no matter how fast they have to grow up, want to find the good in those who “care” for them. But when that good starts to fade, there isn’t much to hold on to. This affects you far into your life, informing your sense of self-worth and own abilities, constantly holding yourself up to an unrealistic standard until you feel like you’re going mad.
Otis’ father is angry, mean, and abusive, but he is portrayed as more than a monster. Honey Boy gives its villain character nuance and depth; you seem him struggle through addictions counseling and grapple with who he has become. But ultimately he lets out his anger on Otis under the guise of love and care for his career. Empathy is created around James, but his actions are never excused, which is a delicate and important balance that Har’el and LaBeouf strike throughout the film. LaBeouf’s performance as his own father is breath-taking and devastating. I don’t think anyone else could have played the character as well as LaBeouf as he channels decades of pain into a phenomenal performance.
Boys and men are often denied access to their feelings by arbitrary societal standards that liken emotions to weakness. But with Honey Boy, accessing emotions and understanding where they’re coming from is a way to freedom. Crying, screaming, and just feeling is an important step to healing. It may not cure you, but as LaBeouf said in an interview, it is like an exorcism. Honey Boy is a beautiful piece of catharsis that frees LaBeouf and those suffering from parental-inflicted PTSD; I can breathe a little easier after seeing this film.
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