Of those who grew up in the late-1990s to early-2000s, many will remember Shia LaBeouf as the star of kids TV comedy Even Stevens and, later, the Transformers movies. In recent years, however, most will remember him for his off-screen antics, which includes a number of arrests for alcohol-induced public order offences and oddball performance art.
In the last year, however, the US actor appears to have turned a corner both in his career and personal life. 2019 saw him work with feature debut directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz and breakthrough actor Zack Gottsagen on the heartwarming comedy The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019). After another drunken arrest during production, Gottsagen had a heart-to-heart with LaBeouf and told him not to screw up his opportunity to make it as an actor, which seems to have played a part in LaBeouf’s renaissance.
Now, Shia LaBeouf has laid all his cards out on the table with Honey Boy, where he plays his own father, a former rodeo clown and recovering drug addict called James Lort. ‘Otis’ is played by indie-darling Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea) in the present and, as a child, by up-and-comer Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place).
When it was first revealed that LaBeouf would be starring in a biographical film as his own father, people rolled their eyes expecting a cloying and overly sentimental vanity project. The result, however, is a surprisingly poignant and honest retelling of LaBeouf’s troubled childhood and a frank exploration of overcoming trauma.
“You know, a seed has to completely destroy itself to become a flower,” Otis’s dad tells him in the dying stages of the film. If ever there was a quote that summarises an entire picture, it’s that. The theme of personal growth and overcoming trauma is typified by this line of dialogue and even sped-up shots of seeds bursting into flowering plants. Slightly on the nose, maybe, but still a nice touch from debut feature director Alma Har’el.
The script is a masterstroke from Shia, written as part of his therapy programme in rehab. Most of its content is based on actual events from his childhood and are deeply revealing. To quote Martin Scorcese, “the most personal is the most creative.” And it doesn’t get much more personal than Honey Boy.
The story jumps between 2005 (where Otis goes through rehab and therapy sessions in which he angrily deals with his drinking problem) and Otis’s childhood in 1996 where he lives out of a motel room with his dad between days on set. The pair clash, sometimes violently, but also share some more poignant moments together (despite the fact these often include a pre-teen smoking cigarettes).
Jupe’s 12-year-old Otis seems more mature than the rage-and beer-fuelled Otis played by Hedges, which speaks volumes about the pressures put on child actors and the effect this has on them later in life. One particularly pleasing aspect of the story is that it does not demonise Shia’s dad as some drink-and-drug-addicted monster. Clearly, he wasn’t a great dad, but the film does well to look at why this is rather than simply painting him with broad strokes.
This is an excellent directorial debut feature from Alma Har’el, and it’s a real shame this didn’t get more recognition during awards season. Traditionally a documentary filmmaker, it’s interesting to see Har’el put her documentarian lens into a more artistically-focused biographical drama, which at times features some dreamy sequences in which young Otis befriends a neighbour from the motel played by FKA Twigs.
Honey Boy is, therefore, an unquestionable turning point for LaBeouf, as well as an encouraging sign of what’s to come from Har’el, Hedges, and Jupe. Based on a sensational script with well-directed actors who naturally inhabit the life and world of Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy is an unmissable ode to childhood and dealing with one’s demons.
Cast & Crew
director: Alma Har’el.
writer: Shia LaBeouf.
starring: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe & FKA Twigs.