Alam Har’el’s first feature film “Honey Boy”, which won the Special Jury Prize when it was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, looks closely into the painful childhood memories of one troubled young man still struggling to understand and accept the origin of his anger and torment. As we observe more of how much he suffered and struggled during his very unhappy childhood, we come to feel more of the deep personal pain and rage churning inside its autobiographical tale, and the movie eventually comes to move us a lot as a part of an ongoing healing process in real life.
When we are introduced to Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) at the beginning, this 22-year-old lad is working on the set of some Hollywood blockbuster film as its lead actor, and then we see how messy his life has been through a dizzy sequence alternating between his busy shooting schedule and his wild private life accompanied with frequent drinking. Not so surprisingly, he soon has a big car accident during another rough night of his, and, due to his heavily drunken state as well his aggressive altercation with police officers, he is subsequently ordered by the court to go to a rehabilitation center instead of going to prison.
Not long after he enters the rehabilitation center, Otis comes to learn from his therapist that he has the clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and he is understandably flabbergasted by this diagnosis. After all, he is not a war veteran, and, as far as he can remember at present, there is not anything particularly traumatic in his whole life.
Nevertheless, the therapist advises Otis to reflect more on his childhood memories, and, as leisurely spending time along with his fellow patients in the rehabilitation center, Otis gradually come to face what has been repressed somewhere in his mind for many years. 10 years ago, young Otis, played by Noah Jupe, was a promising child actor, and his father James (Shia LaBeouf) usually worked as his chaperone on the set, but James was not a very good dad to young Otis for many reasons. Although he stopped drinking for four years after inadvertently becoming a sex offender because of his alcoholism, James was usually neurotic and aggressive as trying to get many things in his life including his son under control, and his frequent outbursts of emotional or physical violence always hurt young Otis’ feeling a lot.
Despite James’ abusive behaviors, young Otis desperately tries to hold onto his father mainly because there are not many people paying attention to him. While his mother, who left James some time ago, is usually absent, some nice guy who happened to get associated with young Otis via the Big Brothers mentoring program is quickly pushed out of the picture thanks to James’ petty aggression, and the only consolation for young Otis comes from a young sex worker living in the same motel where he and his father are currently staying.
Fluidly going back and forth between its two time points, the movie vividly illuminates the strong but deeply problematic emotional bond between young Otis and his father. Sometimes the mood is rather playful between them, but James, who clearly envies his son’s growing success, often feels the need to remind young Otis of who is the boss, and young Otis does not question his father’s bullying authority much – until there finally comes a moment when he comes to decide that enough is enough.
As many of you probably know already, the screenplay by Shia LaBeouf is inspired by his own life story, and it is evident to us that writing this screenplay and then playing the fictional version of his father is a sort of self-therapy for him. While expressing his old pain and anger through fiction, he also attempts to understand and make his peace with his father, and the overall result is both successful and therapeutic thanks to not only the honesty of his writing but also Har’el’s thoughtful handling of mood, story, and characters. While the flashback scenes in the film are usually filled with bright ambience thanks to cinematographer Natasha Braier and composer Alex Somers, they are thankfully devoid of any cheap sentimentality, and that is the main reason why several moments of raw emotions later in the film work.
Har’el also draws wonderful performances from her three main cast members. Never making any excuse or compromise on his character, LaBeouf is utterly compelling in an intense nuanced performance which is completely different from his other recent performance in “The Peanut Butter Falcon” (2019), and it is really nice to see him finally being matured more to be a better actor after making many mistakes and troubles in his life in addition to appearing in those abominable Transformers flicks. On the opposite, Jupe, a young talented British actor who has drawn our attention via his notable supporting turns in “A Quiet Place” (2018) and “Ford v Ferrari” (2019), is an equal acting match for LaBeouf in every minute of their scenes in the film, and his poignant performance is effortlessly connected with the humble performance by Lucas Hedges, who appropriately steps back for Jupe and LaBeouf while functioning as the main supporting ground for their performances.
Overall, “Honey Boy”, whose title is incidentally derived from LaBeouf’s nickname which was given by his father as shown in the film, leaves an indelible impression on us a harrowing personal cri de cœur, and you will be moved by the tentative but hopeful emotional resolution presented at the end of the film. To be frank with you, I do not know how much LaBeouf was really helped and healed by the movie, but, considering what I observed from the film, it looks like he is ready and willing to move onto the next chapter of his life and career, and I can only wish the best for him.