Starring Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA Twigs. Directed by Alma Har’el.
The roman-a-clef, and its cinematic derivative: film-a-clef, are nothing new. It’s a film which is a fictionalised version of true events – most notably, by the writer or director (or both). Famous examples you’ve probably enjoyed include: 8 1/2 (and it’s musical adaptation Nine), All That Jazz, Almost Famous, Magnolia and Postcards from the Edge. None of those films were as intriguing or strange as this.
Honey Boy is the story of Otis, who, in 2005, is arrested for dangerous driving under the influence and sent to court mandated rehab, where he is told he must deal with his PTSD. Flashback to 1995, where Otis is beginning a career in TV under the stern (read: abusive) guidance of his father James.
There is no talking about this film without addressing the story that surrounds its conception. Shia LaBeouf wrote the film in 2017, following his arrest and time in rehab. His therapy showed that he was suffering from a long-standing bout of PTSD, which he too had to comes to terms with. As a result, he showed the screenplay to his friend documentarian Alma Har’el who has turned it into this film.
Har’el clearly has a knack for narrative cinema, as this film is engrossing from the off, traversing the two timelines easily, knowing when to check in with older Otis but also knowing that the film is at its strongest when it’s about the struggles of young Otis.
In directing, Har’el doesn’t ever linger on things that would turn it into sensationalism; there’s a lightness of touch, and a surreal quality to sequences. One in which young Otis spends time with Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), for example, is played as a wordless bout of imagination and almost dance, juxtaposed by James’ self-destruction streak.
It’s to her credit that Har’el has gotten two sublime performances. In fact, there could be an argument made that save for an epilogue, cutting older Otis and spending more time with his younger self would have been a better film. Despite having Lucas Hedges play the older Otis, the film really belongs to Noah Jupe, who plays the younger Otis, and LaBeouf, as a version of his own father.
The fact that Jupe has been absent from the awards circuit talk is a crime; a scene in which he is the go-between on the phone between his mother and father and relays the information by switching voices is not only moving, but a feat that many older actors would need multiple takes in order to achieve. That its done in one take is no small feat, and that he holds his own against LaBeouf going for it is a level of bravery that no one can take for granted.
LaBeouf, of recent years, has been carving an interesting niche for himself. Works like Nymphomaniac, Fury, Man Down, American Honey and Borg vs McEnroe have clearly lead to this point, and helped him hone his narrative skills. With his long receding hair and gut paunch as visual aids, LaBeouf gives the performance of his life, able to flip on a dime, and his ability has never been stronger.
What also becomes clear is that his strange paper-bag wearing, art installation antics are clearly the work of someone begging for help, and in this film you get the sense that he might be on the road recovery.
The script also has some moments of genius, including one where LaBeouf threatens a man with something so extreme it’s both horrifying and absurdly comical. This shows a side to LaBeouf that until now might have been thought to be missing.
Along with her cinematographer Natasha Braier, Har’el has shot the film with an intimacy that at times can feel uncomfortable when things are going from bad to worse, but also keeps us with the people at all times.
For some, this might appear from the outset to be another vanity project from an actor people laugh at, but once seen the film is clearly an attempt at dealing with past trauma, and making some sense of it. In that sense it’s not only incredibly moving, but necessary. In that regard it also bodes well for Alma Har’el in narrative cinema, and more importantly might be on the way to helping LaBeouf: we wish him well.