The most fascinating question advanced by Honey Boy, a rough gem of a film written by and starring Shia LaBeouf, doesn’t have to do with any LaBeoufian dad-demons. This might seem strange for a movie that, on paper, boasts the built-in allure of exposing the troubled past of one of Hollywood’s finest bad boys and longest-standing wild cards. But in practice, the film—which LaBeouf based on his real-life relationship with his dad—unfolds as a rather straightforward father-son drama, complicated by addiction and pride and violence and, of course, competitive virility. Yet concealed beneath the film’s more familiar beats is a less obvious question, posed not by a son to his father but by an artist to himself: How can heartache fuel creativity?
Expertly directed by Alma Har’el, Honey Boy is, more than anything else, a painstakingly sincere therapeutic exercise. The film intercuts between two distinct periods: 1995, at the beginning of a child actor’s career, and 2005, when that same actor has grown into a stormy alcoholic. This LaBeouf proxy is named Otis, played as a 12-year-old by the fantastic Noah Jupe (of A Quiet Place) and as an adolescent by Lucas Hedges. LaBeouf, costumed in absurd hippy clothing and never-ending sideburns, embodies Otis’s motormouth dad James, a recovering addict and ex-clown who, in the 1995 segments, lives with Otis in a rundown motel. The 2005 scenes take place mostly in rehab, where Otis has been placed after a drunken accident, and his reflective time in the facility provides a useful, if standard cinematic framework.
Both the 1995 and 2005 segments open with Otis on a film set—as a kid, he’s having a pie thrown in his face; as an adolescent, he’s being blown up in an action film. In both scenes, Otis is propelled through the air, out of control and flailing—until the fictional shot ends and he’s lowered to the ground by a cable line, brushes himself off, and returns to position for another take. This, the film seems to say, is an actor’s work life: rote, controlled, secure. No matter how many times Otis is exploded or humiliated, he’ll always be guided back to his mark.
Outside of set, Otis’s life is regulated. At home in 1995, James is a volatile presence, oscillating between the role of overbearing stage parent and appalling authority figure. In brighter moods, he’ll coach Otis at juggling, affectionately call him “honey boy,” and regurgitate stale stories of his heyday as a nonpareil rodeo clown whose claim to fame was a trick with a chicken. But Otis recognizes that James can turn in a moment. One mention of Otis’s mom—or especially his kindly mentor from the Big Brother program—and James is apt to turn back into a thrashing, insult-laden monster. Preternaturally even-tempered and mature, Otis knows better than to turn to his dad for warmth.
In rehab in 2005, an adolescent Otis seems to have developed in reverse. Here, he’s as wild as James, storming around therapy rooms in temper fits or sulking on the side during group activities. During these scenes, Otis is the one who can’t be trusted. When, at one point, a rehab counselor asks Otis whether the feelings he’s sharing are “sincere or mocking,” Otis replies, “both.” In an obvious piece of connective tissue, one of Otis’s chores in rehab is to care for chickens, cleaning out their coop and chasing after them just like he used to chase down his chicken-obsessed dad’s affection.
Throughout the film, lengthy conversational scenes are split up with lyrical sequences, and Har’el will often pause the action to zero in on small moments: a plant growing by the side of a highway, a snake gliding along the surface of the motel pool. On many occasions, the camera will spend time trailing Otis from behind, both during his boyhood in car junkyards and as a young adult exploring the woods outside his facility, serving to evoke a sense of inexhaustible searching and longing. Appropriately, Otis never finds exactly what he’s seeking; where a clunkier screenplay would fall into the trap of manufacturing a “breakthrough moment” in rehab or a teary catharsis with James, Honey Boy’s ending is murkier. .
Still, it’s impossible to watch Honey Boy as an enclosed work of art. In addition to 1995 and 2005, you may as well just add in 2019: the very fact of the movie’s making is, inescapably, another beat in its artist’s self-reckoning. When, at the Sundance premiere, Har’el and Jupe took the stage to answer questions after the screening, LaBeouf remained at first concealed in the audience, shielding himself from the spotlight before shyly mounting the stage to accept his applause.
An endlessly unpredictable creative mind, LaBeouf has become one of those actors whose renown is split into two distinct camps: the talent and the troubles. The cleverness of Honey Boy lies in its bridging of these two elements, its deft way of demonstrating that pain is not only injurious; it’s also propulsive. And in the best cases, the art that stems from it is immediate, expressive and euphoric.