Shia LaBeouf mines patriarchal pain to bring his own coming-of-age to the screen

Rhys Handley on Alma Har’el’s ‘Honey Boy’ (2019)

Context is key to the understanding and appreciation of Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy. Before jumping in, it’s worth the viewer knowing that the film’s screenplay is the product of a creative task assigned to writer and star Shia LaBeouf during his rehabilitation programme. Further to that, given the knotty and abstract emotions such an undertaking inevitably dredges up, engagement is inevitably aided or impeded dependent on whether one has a prior relationship to LaBeouf’s child stardom and subsequent career.

That familiarity certainly enhances some of the more knowing details peppered throughout the feature, whether it be the curly-haired, impish swagger of LaBeouf surrogate Otis, played with tender confidence by Noah Jupe, channeling with warm familiarity the energy of LaBeouf’s own early turn in kid’s comedy Even Stevens, or the Transformers-adjacent, explosive ridiculousness of his stunt work on a sci-fi blockbuster as a young adult portrayed by Lucas Hedges.

Certainly for those who grew up alongside LaBeouf in the 1990s and early 2000s, this sentimental connection creates a more direct through-line of empathy through which to follow Otis at both ages as he navigates the murky waters of childhood celebrity and success. In conversation with his past self, LaBeouf navigates the loose, hazy fault lines of his memories with Har’el, in her fictional feature debut, as a gentle guide trying to cultivate narrative clarity amid the fog.

Coming from such a deeply internal space, the story of Honey Boy emerges in unfinished fragments as it dances between the early years of Otis’ burgeoning screen career and the more intensely true-to-life depiction of the character’s later spell in rehab. So close as he is to the work here, LaBeouf’s screenplay is effective at conveying emotion in an unknowable, metaphysical sense, though its lightness of touch — reinforced by Har’el’s knack for sunset-drenched images of slow-motion beauty — means the situational specifics of the feature’s actual story are not given as much space to land properly.

Above all else, though, Honey Boy is LaBeouf’s treatise on fatherhood, refracting and ever-so-slightly fictionalising his relationship with his father Jeffery to weave a tapestry of torment and confusion. Jeffrey’s avatar, James, is depicted by LaBeouf himself in a physically unflattering light, with a deflated paunch and sad, receded mullet — a manifestation of LaBeouf’s own fears of failure, decay and arrested development. A failed clown with delusions of grandeur, James hitches himself to Otis’ star as his minder in an act as much of penance for past sins — abuse both substance and domestic — as it is a pathetic, last-ditch attempt to live out unrealised ambitions vicariously through his son.

LaBeouf, wrestling here with the demons that still haunt him, does not pull punches on James, depicting him in all his revolting glory, but what is most affecting is his refusal to see this fallen father figure as anything other than entirely human. James is manipulative and exploitative in his tumultuous interactions with Otis, but in Honey Boy’s most affecting moments, genuine affection leaks through the cracks in James’ armour and the shadow of the parent he could have been can be made out. LaBeouf’s performance of his own dialogue is what sells this complexity, and the film’s standout moments all have him front-and-centre, giving everything in a heady collision of his own psychological hangups with his father and the very real torment that comes with being a man like James.

Honey Boy’s greatest strength is in the work it undertakes to build James into a rich and knowable character, and the sticky dichotomy that emerges between himself and Jupe’s Otis — the performers share a deep, lived-in chemistry. The ripple effects this has, though, are to the detriment to the rest of the film. LaBeouf and Har’el’s laser focus on the figure of James means the other moving parts at play get left by the wayside. The 2000s-set sequences with Hedges are intercut into the 90s narrative are a neat framing device, but less work is put in to substantiate them or to tie Hedges’ performance to Jupe’s, ultimately wounding the film’s ability to tie up its disparate threads at the close.

Its slight, 93-minute runtime arguably works against Honey Boy’s effectiveness too, with strands such as young Otis’ sweet frisson with a neighbouring call girl (FKA Twigs) left feeling unfinished or inconsequential, while a brief offscreen appearance by Russian Doll star-of-the-moment Natasha Lyonne as Otis’ mother suggests a longer cut that attempts to traverse further avenues of LaBeouf’s psyche and history. Another 15 minutes would not have been a sin.

Ultimately, Honey Boy is a well-calibrated empathy engine. In spite of its shortcomings, it is hard not to feel for the sheer feat of catharsis on show — the screenplay’s therapeutic purpose very much shines through. With its soft hue and keen eye for beauty amid the maelstrom, it serves as a fine calling card for Har’el’s talents and brings the viewer close to LaBeouf in a commendable act of vulnerability. With understanding and acceptance, he confronts himself and the man who defined him, for better or worse, with artistic flair and humanity, which deserves commendation.

Honey Boy is showing in UK cinemas now.

Rhys Handley

By Rhys Handley

Rhys Handley is a journalist and film critic currently reading Film Studies MA at King's College London. He has appeared in Sight & Sound, One Room with a View, CineVue, and Vague Visages.