The world is a cruel place, and we are a cruel people within it. We love to put others down for the sake of making our own selves feel better, and we’ve all done it at some point or another. We laughed at Britney Spears when she shaved her head, we slut-shamed Monica Lewinsky for literal decades, and we pigeonholed Shia LaBeouf as just another child star went bad when his legal troubles started. We place all this blame on an individual with no question as to what events or circumstances might have led someone to do such a thing or the people that might have pressured them into becoming who they are. This is not a new phenomenon, but the act of people taking back the narrative of their trauma and struggle is something that we as a society have been more receptive to hear in the advent of social media and the #MeToo movement. Honey Boy, the directorial debut for music video director Alma Har’el, also marks the screenwriting debut for LaBeouf, who tells a semi-autobiographical story of a child actor found in the same circumstances as he, and the abusive father that led him down this path. It’s an admirable and brave move on the part of LaBeouf, who seeks to reclaim the narrative about his career, and takes the tough road of playing the role of his own father in the film.
Otis (Noah Jupe in flashbacks, Lucas Hedges in present-day) is a child-star turned young adult actor who finds himself in legal trouble after a third DUI arrest. To avoid jail time, he must attend a stint in rehab to help cope with his substance abuse. During this time, Otis is forced to relive his childhood as a young actor living with his abusive, alcoholic, veteran father, James (Shia LaBeouf) in a motel. Otis must reconcile with his stolen childhood through vignettes of physical and mental abuse, isolation, and his complicated relationship with a character only known as Shy Girl (FKA Twigs), a prostitute who lives across the parking lot from him at the motel.
Much like LaBeouf with his father in the film, it’s hard to really reconcile with Honey Boy much of the time. It’s a film that doesn’t look to entertain, but rather to explain, and it does a very admirable job in doing so. It makes everything surrounding LaBeouf’s adult life make sense, while never looking to excuse him for his less-than-pleasant actions. The film doesn’t make you want to feel guilty by giving you this explanation upfront, but it’s an unfortunate by-product of the film’s content in general. Even if the film hadn’t been based on a true story, Honey Boy is not a film that makes you feel good by any means. That leads a lot of the film, admirable as it may be, to feel like a slog.
That’s not to say that Honey Boy doesn’t have its good parts to it. For one, the acting in it is pretty incredible, with some truly moving stuff from LaBeouf and Jupe, who play two very different, but very troubled characters in their own right. The chemistry between the two actors is second-to-none, with a strange, off-and-on dynamic that only could be written by a person at the hand of such abuse. LaBeouf, primarily, gives a pretty unsettling performance as his own father, something that had to have been equally painful and cathartic to put together as an actor, but it exists as some of his best work to date. Hedges, despite being shortchanged for screen time, does a pretty good job doing his best Shia LaBeouf impersonation, which feels equally impressive and a bit pantomime at the same time.
The issues with Honey Boy begin to come in when it becomes clear that the film’s dealings with the “fantasy vs. reality” element don’t really take shape in any form other than to make the film feel more flashy as a drama. It’s clear narratively why they exist, but it never takes shape into a cohesive statement about the nature of imagination through trauma. It begins to feel superficial as the film drags on, and it makes you wonder, in moments of reprieve, whether the film will actually follow through on any sort of levity throughout its runtime.
Speaking of runtimes, at just 98 minutes, Honey Boy was the shortest film I got to see at Film Fest 919, but it arguably had one of the slowest paces, making the film feel much, much longer. The film begins to feel repetitive around the halfway point, bringing the movement of the film’s narrative to a screeching halt. From then on, it felt like we simply got the same scenes, but in a longer form, making the film feel even more and more hopeless than it already had up to that point.
It’s a tough topic to tackle, and it’s even tougher to make a film like this without it becoming a total downer in the process. Honey Boy lacks that sense of hope that keeps films of a similar nature going in times of strife, and that’s not to say a film like this isn’t worthy of its depressing nature, nor that films such as this should necessarily be happy, but without a sliver of hope or wonder to keep the audience going, it becomes more and more distant as the film progresses onward. Ideally, I should be wanting to move closer to the characters and story, rather than feeling as if I’m watching it even more from afar come the film’s conclusion.
Honey Boy does have the added benefit of being pretty, luckily. Shot by Natasha Braier, cinematographer behind 2016 diamond-in-the-rough The Neon Demon, the film is bathed in rich contrast and neon dreaminess, reminiscent of the films of Sean Baker and Andrea Arnold (for which LaBeouf starred in her 2016 film, American Honey, which is amazing). It suits the film’s almost hallucinogenic nature and it’s one of the stronger elements that really does bring you into the film more than much of the film’s storytelling does.
And that’s what makes me feel guilty the most about Honey Boy. While I identified with LaBeouf’s trauma and heartbreak surrounding his childhood, the structure and pacing of the film left me feeling empty to the struggles of the fictionalized version of himself on screen. It’s difficult to fill in the gaps between Otis’s childhood and adulthood without some form of exposition through the rehab sequences, which leave much to the imagination. That’s not to say Honey Boy isn’t without its admirable elements, as its aesthetic and performances from Jupe and, especially, LaBeouf, bring a lot to the table in terms of power and subtlety. Perhaps my fatigue was setting in by the end of Film Fest 919, or perhaps it just happened to be so, but Honey Boy, despite its best efforts, just left no real mark aside from the concept of being able to understand LaBeouf a bit more. Maybe that was the point, but it wasn’t enough to make me remember the film.
In theaters beginning November 8th, 2019.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.