Look, every movie ever made features some kind of autobiography, whether in a minuscule moment or the entire picture. Art naturally gets into the preoccupations of its creators, and how they express those preoccupations determines how we respond to it. Sometimes, recreating your own experience basically verbatim could make for a miserable, naval-gazing experience or an unpleasant hagiography of oneself. Arguably my favorite film of all time is the highly autobiographical All That Jazz from Bob Fosse, which certainly has its moments of hagiography but also does not shy away from what a miserable person Fosse could be. This brings us to Honey Boy, the highly autobiographical tale of its writer and star Shia LaBeouf.
LaBeouf, for many, exists now as a punchline, whether it is people blaming him for tanking the Indiana Jones series, laughing at his performance art pieces, or relishing in bashing him for his legal troubles. For me, he has consistently been choosing exciting, interesting work as an actor since his rise to superstardom in films like American Honey, Nymphomaniac, or this year’s The Peanut Butter Falcon. The man dedicates himself to every new character he plays and rarely does he not deliver for those willing to give him the chance. With Honey Boy, he makes his feature screenwriting debut with a story about him growing up as an actor on the Disney Channel with Even Stevens (though the names have been changed) and his relationship with his alcoholic, abusive father, who LaBeouf himself plays.
The film clearly was born out of some therapeutic necessity to deal with his demons. Whether or not the portion of Honey Boy featuring Lucas Hedges in rehab after getting into a car crash happened the way it does in the film, which depicts him seemingly writing the film you are watching, I do not know, but it was clearly born out of a similar headspace. The pain felt here is all too personal and real. LaBeouf needed to get these things off his chest and funnel it into something where he can really process it all. What better way for a film actor than through a film. Admittedly, sometimes the therapy feel of the picture is a little alienating, with his troubles being a little too specific to border on not relatable if you are not a child in the entertainment business. But mostly the raw nerve works.
Though LaBeouf wrote the film, he did not direct it. Alma Har’el makes her narrative feature debut here, after working in documentaries and music videos mostly. What she excels at is capturing those harshly true moments. The scenes between LaBeouf as his father and Noah Jupe, quickly becoming one of the great child actors, as kid LaBeouf (named Otis in the film) light up the screen. They feel like we are peering into a father/son situation we really do not want to be apart of. Rarely a moment between them looks performative in the slightest. The same goes for Hedges as the older Otis.
I wish Har’el had a stronger visual eye. Aside from the mirroring shots of young and older Otis rigged up for a stunt on their respective sets, very little of the movie strikes me visually. Sometimes a director tries to go for a “realistic” aesthetic by stripping away as much as they can and ends up with almost no aesthetic to speak of. I’m afraid that holds a bit true here. Even in the scenes meant to be dreamlike do not have the kind of spark I think she wants us to feel. The film also looks like its budget was almost nonexistent, which could present some troubles when creating indelible images, but there are plenty of movies that have done more with less.
Because the writing and the performances are so good, I can forgive that. LaBeouf gives probably his best performance to date with a character he clearly could have made simply a monster. He treats his father very fairly and humanely, seeing him as an immensely troubled soul rather than someone just out to do bad things. Jupe and Hedges really capture their versions of Shia (Otis) perfectly. They certainly feel like the actor I’ve been watching throughout my life, from the Disney days on. What it lacks in style it makes up for in honest emotion. Sometimes it can get to be a bit too much, but it mostly works as an emotionally fulfilling experience in the theater.
Categories: New Releases