A young actor’s stormy childhood and early adult years as he struggles to reconcile with his father and deal with his mental health.
Director: Alma Har’el
Writer: Shia LaBeouf
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe
Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy,” a film that represents a cinematic act of courage for its writer and co-star Shia LaBeouf, who delivered the director a screenplay that’s based on his own upbringing as a child star under the thumb of an abusive father…played in the film by LaBeouf. “Honey Boy” opens with a riveting montage of a young actor in 2005 named Otis (Lucas Hedges), who first appears on the set of an action movie that is clearly a stand-in for “Transformers.” The montage ends with Otis being told that he has symptoms of PTSD. He doesn’t understand how that’s possible. What’s his trauma? It’s his upbringing. And it’s Shia’s upbringing. “Honey Boy” is the cinematic exorcism needed to deal with a major actor’s PTSD. On that level, it’s riveting drama, always existing as a personal, meta piece for a man openly and artistically dealing with his past while also being a study of child stardom, addiction, and abuse.
The increasingly impressive Noah Jupe plays young Otis, stuck in a sleazy motel with his dad James, who he pays to be his assistant. Otis is a child star of a certain level, not big enough to live the L.A. high life, but big enough to keep him and his dad alive. James is a former rodeo clown, former alcoholic, former convict, and former sex offender. He’s that classic male type who finds a way to blame everyone else for his failures. He’s selfish. His problems and needs are more important than his son’s, and we know that from minute one when he’s too distracted by a pretty woman to take care of Otis. Much of “Honey Boy” plays out like a tense two-hander with Otis and James in their tiny motel room, and the audience waiting for an outburst.
There are parts of “Honey Boy” that feel repetitively over-directed and then other parts that feel under-directed—moments I wanted to live in longer, to have the director let them breathe more. It has a herky-jerky rhythm at times, although that could be to reflect the way that traumatic memories often return to us. And yet my problems with “Honey Boy” are vastly overshadowed by the courage it took to even make this movie. Labeouf has become a really fascinating actor in challenging work like “American Honey,” “Nymphomaniac,” and even “Borg v. McEnroe,” and I’ve found myself rooting for that trajectory to continue. Hopefully, just making “Honey Boy” allows him the closure he needed.
– Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com